Israel is ramping up its outreach to the growing numbers of evangelical Christians, particularly in the Global South, in order to build popular support for state policies.
On a crisp winter morning in Jerusalem, a group of American Christian leaders with Bibles under their arms walk the hilltop where many believe King David first established the Jewish capital some 3,000 years ago.
As they make their way along the rocky paths of the City of David, a vast archaeological dig still in process, a radio host with 70,000 listeners tweets every step of the way while an Anglican pastor with an Israeli flag on his iPhone screen says he’s “absolutely hoping” to bring a group of his own next year. Though the dig weaves through, and sometimes under, the homes of disgruntled Palestinian residents in this highly contested part of East Jerusalem, no one mentions that another people also lay claim to this holy city.
Many of these influential Christians, brought over by the Chicago branch of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, plan to bring their many followers here – or already have. They are part of a growing band of Christians around the world who see support for Israel as a divine calling, some of whom are motivated by apocalyptic urgency.
Increasingly, Israel is not only cultivating their love of the Holy Land but also courting their political support, with some proponents calling such faith-based diplomacy the most powerful weapon in Israel’s diplomatic arsenal – though its precise capabilities and range remain to be fully proven.
“You folks here are the best offense and defense we could ever have,” Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told an overflow crowd at the seventh annual Night to Honor Our Christian Allies, held last month at the city’s prestigious King David Hotel. “Enjoy the city of Jerusalem … and go back home as strong ambassadors of the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem."
While this largely evangelical movement is most well organized in the US, its most rapid growth is coming from developing countries like Brazil and Nigeria, which have not traditionally supported the Jewish state. Israel, very much conscious of the welcome support this could yield in forums like the United Nations, is tapping into the shared religious heritage of Judaism and Christianity to boost everything from tourism to Israel’s standing on the world stage.
"There is a new dynamic taking place in our world where [Christian supporters] are growing in a dramatic way, who are standing with the nation of Israel like never before,” said Jürgen Bühler, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has expanded to 80 branches around the world since its inception in 1980. “I believe this meeting today in Jerusalem in a way symbolizes, encapsulates, this dynamic movement that is taking place, that a new breed of Christianity is growing up which will stand with the nation of Israel no matter what."
The growth in supporters from developing countries is the result of two unrelated phenomenons, says David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). “You’re getting a growth of the potential base … and then you’re getting an increasing percentage of the actual base expressing support for Israel,” says Mr. Brog. “Those two phenomenons are responsible for expressions of support from countries that have been fairly neutral or silent, such as Brazil, South Korea, and Nigeria.”
The growth in the potential base that Brog mentions is driven largely by the tremendous increase of evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals, around the world. Since 1970, the percentage of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians in Latin America alone has grown nearly seven-fold, from 4.4 percent of the total population to 28 percent in 2005, according to a report on global Pentecostalism by the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life.
In Africa the percentage of such Christians more than tripled during the same period, from less than 5 percent to 17 percent.
While the reasons for a growth in support for Israel are harder to quantify, the work of individuals like Renê Terra Nova – one of two Christian leaders honored at the recent event in Jerusalem – is certainly part of the equation. Mr. Terra Nova, the national director of ICEJ-Brazil, oversees a network of Latin American churches with an estimated 6 million followers, and has brought tens of thousands of Christians to Israel over the past two decades either on his own tours or those led by pastors under him. Some have come as many as 30 times.
Eyal Carlin, who co-launched the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s religious tourism desk two years ago, singles out Brazil as one of their fastest-growing markets for Christian tourists, along with Indonesia and China, which saw a growth of 68 percent and 49 percent respectively from 2010 to 2012. He says the ministry has improved its use of social media and other digital platforms to attract Christians, more so than other markets, and has used roughly half of its hosting budget – some 10 million shekels ($2.7 million) last year – to target influential Christian leaders who will in turn bring their own followers.
“In general, it’s one of our objectives to bring as many church leadership or media groups to Israel as possible that influence decisionmaking in their organizations,” he says.
It’s not that evangelicals are only now discovering their love for Israel. Many have long cherished the land of the Bible, but in quieter ways, including prayer. However, in the last decade there has been a surge of interest in harnessing that natural affinity into more overtly political channels. And Israel has taken a more active interest in cultivating pro-Israel Christian groups, in part to counter the anti-Israel boycott-divestment-sanctions (BDS) movement that has attracted some social-activist Christians.
“[Pro-Israel Christians] have always been there,” says Petra Heldt, founder of the Protestant Consultation on Israel and the Middle East and the other honoree at the recent event in Jerusalem.
“What we do have today is in Israel very much a concern about the momentum of BDS and Kairos Palestine and stuff going on in the world that culturally influences the West,” she says, referring to a 2009 document by Christian leaders that urged BDS action. “So they put more of an effort into gathering those who support Israel. It’s new for Israel to recognize such a thing, and to recognize the necessity of gathering allies of that kind.”
Just how well the support of Christian Zionists, as they are sometimes called, translates into meaningful leverage on the world stage has yet to be fully demonstrated. Brog says he hasn’t seen evidence that the base in countries such as Brazil and Nigeria has gotten big enough to have a “great ability to influence government policy.” But the US is another story, in his view.
Whereas most Jews are centered in a few key cities like New York and Los Angeles, there are evangelical Christians in “every congressional district in between,” says CUFI’s Brog, an American Jew. “We have the numbers and geographical reach to reach every member of Congress.”
Some even go so far as to say that the newly mobilized Christian Zionist bloc rivals AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that has long enabled America’s Jewish community to punch above its weight in Congress and the White House.
“AIPAC is a great organization … but there's no doubt there are more Bible-believing Christians than there are Jews in America,” says Josh Reinstein, the US-born director of Israel’s Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. “Already I think the Christian community is more influential than AIPAC. No Republican can get elected to Congress or to the presidency without supporting Israel and that's because of the Christian community."
But Dylan Williams, director of government affairs for J Street in Washington, says that while pro-Israel evangelical groups are becoming better known, they tend to come from areas of the country that are already staunchly pro-Israel and thus have a “negligible” ability to influence policy on Capitol Hill.
He also suggests that the net effect of their work can actually have a negative impact on bilateral relations.
“Rather than advancing the US-Israel relationship, the activity of a lot of evangelical Zionists has sort of driven a wedge into the bipartisan consensus on Israel … because they’ve pushed the conservative members who represent them further to the hawkish extreme,” says Mr. Williams, citing the recent example of Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas opposing the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Senator Cornyn was the first to come again against Senator Hagel’s nomination, at the request of Christian pastor John Hagee, and spearheaded a very vocal campaign to paint Hagel as too hard on Israel and too soft on Iran.
Evangelical Zionists staunchly support Israel’s right to defend itself, whether from Iran’s nuclear program, Gaza missile attacks, or another Palestinian intifada in the West Bank. They are also becoming increasingly vocal supporters of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its undivided and eternal capital, and thus its right to build up Jewish neighborhoods – even in Palestinian areas that Israel took over during the 1967 war with its Arab neighbors.
Washington has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, where Palestinians want to establish the capital of their future state, and has instead kept the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.
Christian Zionists tend to believe that God promised the whole land of Israel to the Jews, including the West Bank, and have expressed skepticism of the viability of land-for-peace formulas. But Pastor Hagee, the founder of CUFI and arguably the most influential Christian Zionists leader with a mega-church of some 20,000 members and a radio audience of more than 100 million, wrote in a 2010 opinion piece that his organization would never try to block a peace deal. “Our involvement in the peace process will continue to be restricted to defending Israel’s right to make decisions free of international interference or pressure – including US pressure.”
For Christian leaders such as those who recently visited the City of David, however, their interest in Israel’s welfare isn’t just about politics.
“As a minister, I do feel there’s a biblical mandate to bless the children of Abraham,” says Pastor David Sagil of Chicago, minister of Jewish relations for United Pentecostal Churches International, which represents more than 4,300 Pentecostal churches around the world. “I don’t necessarily support the state of Israel in all its decisions, but I do support the nation of Israel.”
* Chelsea B. Sheasley contributed reporting from Jerusalem.