JERUSALEM (Oct. 4)
“I Stand by Israel” reads Christel Diekmann’s T-shirt as Star of David earrings dangle above her shoulders. On her 34th pilgrimage to Israel, she is one of more than 4,000 evangelical Christians from across the globe who have gathered here to pledge their unconditional support for the Jewish state.
“If I believe in the Bible I have to help Israel,” said Diekmann, 51, who runs a Jewish-Christian outreach organization in Oberursel, Germany.
Dismissing any skepticism about the unflinching support for Israel offered by the evangelists, American television evangelist Pat Robertson, the highest profile of the pilgrims, who has spoken out vehemently against Palestinian statehood and militant Islam, said, “I’m one of the best friends you’ve ever had.”
As other Christian groups consider divestment campaigns against Israel and anti-Israel sentiment across the world grows, many here welcomed the visiting Christians.
The Christians have gathered in Israel this week to celebrate the Sukkot holiday in what they call their annual Feast of the Tabernacles, a festival they say was traditionally a time for non-Jews to celebrate along with Jews during the period of the ancient Temples.
The festival is organized by the International Christian Embassy, whose officials dub the event the largest solidarity mission to Israel this year.
“We found that Israel has not run out of adversaries and she needs friends,” said David Parsons, spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.
“When we read our Bibles, we see it has wonderful things to say about Judaism and Israel,” he said.
“It’s a biblical basis of support and we find that from many different backgrounds” the thing the pilgrims have in common “is the Bible and a God-given love for Israel.”
The Christian Embassy was founded 25 years ago, Parsons said, “to minister comfort to the Jewish people” and to show Jews that there are those who were dismayed by the history of Christian anti-Semitism and wanted to stand with Israel and its right to exist.
According to Parsons, with its representatives in 80 countries, the International Christian Embassy is probably the world’s largest Christian Zionist organization.
The organization said it did not believe in the End of Days scenario that Jews are to be gathered back to Israel for their eventual destruction after Armageddon.
“We don’t think they are being gathered back to be annihilated. We believe God will protect this nation no matter what comes,” Parsons said.
At a news conference, Robertson evaded the question of whether in the long run, Jews and Christians were at odds theologically.
“I don’t know,” he told reporters, “It’s in God’s hands.”
Part of God’s plan, he said, is for the ingathering of Jews back to Israel. He and other evangelists see God’s hand in the creation of Israel. And he said he sees Arabs’ attempts to foil the state part of “Satan’s plan.”
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein is probably the Jewish figure most intensely linked with Christian evangelists. As the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, he has been working with them for almost 30 years.
He said in that time he has seen more Christian support for Israel and increasingly positive Jewish attitudes toward such Christians.
“I’ve seen a change in Jewish attitudes, people are much more positive and open and saying, ‘Thank you.’
“They are aware that these people are our friends,” he said, adding that having Christian friends is a critical asset for Israel and the fight against world anti-Semitism.
Eckstein said it is especially important for Jews now to link up with Christian supporters when there are so many born-again Christians at the top levels of the American government, including President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and House Majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
Eckstein’s organization raises some $20 million a year from Christians abroad for causes in Israel such as soup kitchens and immigrant absorption.
He said his organization encourages churches not only to pray for Israel but to contribute financially and lobby for Israel.
Some Orthodox Jews in Israel are especially wary of Christian evangelists because of potential proselytizing.
Orthodox Jews here worry about missionary activity “of which there is no small amount in Israel,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Jewish Media Resources, an Orthodox media resource organization.
Singing “We Love Israel,” waving Israeli flags and blowing shofars, thousands of pilgrims from the 80 countries represented at the Sukkot gathering took to Jerusalem’s streets Monday to express their support for Israel.
They passed out their country’s flags as well as candy to the large crowds of Jerusalemites who gathered to watch their parade wind through downtown.
People are here “because we believe in God and God is the God of Israel, so we love the people of the land,” said Ruben Pavia, 43, a bank clerk from Belem, Brazil, wearing Brazil’s national colors of green and yellow and waving his country’s flag along with dozens of his fellow Brazilians.
Dancing with a group representing the Ivory Coast, 34-year-old Jean Paul Dogo, who works as a translator for his West African country’s first lady, praised Israel.
“We love Israel, our hearts are with Israel without conditions. They are our brothers,” he said.
In the crowd of onlookers there were smiles and hands grasped in greeting with the marchers. Many waved and shouted “Shalom” in return to the greetings of the pilgrims.
“You see I am crying. I am very moved because we are so alone and this gives us feeling that someone cares,” said Miriam Bennet, 57, a homemaker from Bnei Brak.
She said she did not mind that the marchers were devout Christians. “We can’t all be Jewish,” she mused. “It’s just nice to see we are not alone.”