Doubts Greet Evangelical Christians in Israel Seven thousand evangelical Christians from nearly 100 countries are in Israel this week to show support for the Jewish state. But a growing number of people are concerned about missionary activity.
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Doubts Greet Evangelical Christians in Israel

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Doubts Greet Evangelical Christians in Israel

Doubts Greet Evangelical Christians in Israel

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This week, Israelis have a close and sometimes uncomfortable look at some of their most important backers. Thousands of evangelical Christians are visiting to show support for the Jewish state.

NPR's Linda Gradstein explains why some Israelis are concerned.

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LINDA GRADSTEIN: Waving flags, singing and dancing, thousands of evangelical Christian pilgrims in colorful costumes thronged the streets of Jerusalem this week. They marched as part of the city's traditional parade for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Although Israel's chief rabbis ruled that Jews should not attend the events, most of those watching said they either hadn't heard of the ruling 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.

Ms. SANDY CASSEE (Tourist): It's been a spiritual journey. This has been a quest. And to meet God's chosen people, to see where it all happened in the Bible to be here, and to be here with them and to praise and worship with them. Awesome.

GRADSTEIN: The Cassees are among the growing number of devout Protestants, many of them Americans, who fervently support Israel. For many Israelis, more used 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, wore a white skullcap and Jewish prayer shawl to the march, describing himself as a gentile with a Jewish heart. He was close to tears as he contemplated the possibility of an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Mr. LEON FERGUSON (Tourist): The true and living God wants his people to be in an undivided Israel, undivided Jerusalem, and 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.

GRADSTEIN: 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. But 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.

Ms. MINA FENTON (City Councilwoman, Jerusalem, Israel): Everything is linked with the belief in their messiah. And they want, ultimately, any one of them, when you speak more than 10 minutes - after the support - the economical support and the political support - they say what their aim is: The Jewish people have to convert.

GRADSTEIN: 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.

Gershom Gorenberg, who has written a book on Christian fundamentalism called "The End of Days," says that many evangelical Christians do want Jews to convert to Christianity.

Mr. GERSHOM GORENBERG (Author, "The End of Days"): That vision is one in which the Jews eventually disappear. And if you say that at the end of days in the perfected world there aren't going to be any Jews, then what you're saying is that right now you don't accept the legitimacy of Judaism.

GRADSTEIN: 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.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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