Doubts Greet Evangelical Christians in Israel

Sandy and Greg Cassee

Sandy and Greg Cassee from Amarillo, Texas, are among the growing number of devout Protestants, many of them Americans, who fervently support Israel. Linda Gradstein, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Linda Gradstein, NPR
Sukkot Parade in Jerusalem

An evangelical Christian from the United Kingdom waves Israeli and British flags during a parade in celebration of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in downtown Jerusalem. David Furst/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David Furst/AFP/Getty Images

Seven thousand evangelical Christians from nearly 100 countries are in Israel this week to show support for the Jewish state.

Many Israelis warmly welcome the Christian pilgrims. But a growing number are concerned about missionary activity.

This year, Israel's chief rabbis said Jews should not become involved in any of the evangelical events.

Support for Israel

The evangelical Christians in colorful costumes wave flags, sing and dance — marching as part of the city's traditional parade for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Most of those watching said they either hadn't heard of the ruling by the rabbis — or didn't care.

Wearing large styrofoam cowboy hats and beaming with joy, Sandy and Greg Cassee from Amarillo, Texas, said this was their first visit to Israel.

The Cassees are among the growing number of devout Protestants, many of them Americans, who fervently support Israel. For many Israelis, more accustomed to sharp criticism of their country because of its occupation of the West Bank, this support is welcome. It's also lucrative. Over the past 20 years, evangelical Christians have contributed billions of dollars to Israel.

They have given money directly to many of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, building synagogues, schools and playgrounds there. This week's events included visits to the settlements.

Leon Ferguson, an African-American from New York, wears a white skullcap and Jewish prayer shawl to the march, describing himself as a gentile with a Jewish heart. He is close to tears as he contemplates the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

"The true and living God wants his people to be in an undivided Israel, undivided Jerusalem," he says. "There should be no more give-backs. Every time we give back the land of Israel, something happens in the United States. Katrina followed the give-back of the Gaza."

The Issue of Conversion

The fervor of these evangelicals worries many Israelis. Mina Fenton, a Jerusalem city councilwoman from the National Religious Party, says missionary activity has increased in recent years. She says she is even more disturbed by the theology of many of the evangelical Christians who are waiting for the Second Coming of Christ.

"Everything is linked with the belief in their messiah," she says. "They want, ultimately, any one of them, when you speak more than 10 minutes — after the political support and the economic support — they say what their aim is: The Jewish people have to convert."

Spokesmen for the organizers of this week's march, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, say that while spreading the gospel is part of the evangelical Christian faith, it is clearly discouraged here. But Gershom Gorenberg, who has written a book on Christian fundamentalism called The End of Days says that many evangelical Christians want Jews to convert to Christianity.

"That vision is one in which the Jews eventually disappear," he says. "If you say that at the end of days, in a perfect world there aren't going to be any Jews, what you're saying, right now, is that you don't accept the legitimacy of Judaism."

But for the Christian pilgrims visiting Israel, and for the Israelis who came to greet them, the Christian economic and political support now is more important than any vague theological future.

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