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Evangelicals get a piece of the Promised Land

OAKLAND, California (IPS) - After more than 30 years of organizing testimonial dinners for right-wing Israeli politicians, handing out checks to Israeli charities, and forming alliances with conservative Jewish leaders and groups, evangelical Christians may finally be getting a chunk of the Promised Land.

In a move geared toward solving northern Israel's unemployment crisis, increasing tourism to the country, and solidifying relations with American evangelical Christians, the Israeli government has offered 14 hectares of land on the shore of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) for development by Christian evangelicals.

The Israeli government hopes the evangelicals will build a large conference center, complete with amenities, to attract hundreds of thousands of evangelical tourists from the United States and other countries.

(According to officials at Israel's tourism ministry, more than 400,000 Christian tourists brought $1.4 billion into Israel in the past year.)

In May, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and former Prime Minister and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who resigned his post due to opposition over what he called the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza settlements, made the offer at a meeting with a host of evangelical leaders.

They included Pastor Sunday Adelaja of the Embassy of God in Ukraine, Pastors Brian and Bobbie Houston of Hillsong in Australia, Louis Cortes of Esperanza USA, and Ted Haggard, the Senior Pastor of the Colorado Springs, Colorado, New Life Church and the president of the 30-million-member National Association of Evangelicals.

Also on hand was Dr Paul Crouch, president of Trinity Broadcasting Network, a worldwide giant in Christian broadcasting, and Jay Sekulow, the head of the American Centre for Law & Justice, a Christian-based law firm founded by the Reverend Pat Robertson.

Although the offer came unexpectedly, Ted Haggard, a highly influential evangelical leader with close ties to the George W Bush administration, told the Financial Times that under the right conditions perhaps as many as one million evangelicals would visit Israel annually.

"While I don't know the particulars of the Israeli government's offer, I have long been an advocate for the Israeli government encouraging significant numbers of evangelical Christians to move to Israel and make the Holy Land their permanent home," Rabbi Shmuley Boteach told IPS in a series of emails.

Rabbi Boteach, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host, author of 15 books, and a syndicated columnist, believes that while Israel should always maintain "a sizable Jewish majority," evangelical Christian immigrants should be welcome in Israel as long as they "respect the integrity of the Jewish faith by foreswearing the proselytization of the Jewish population."

Concerned about security and the "well-being of the state of Israel," Rabbi Boteach said that, "There is no better way to demonstrate this than to have a few hundred thousand evangelicals making Israel their home, and serve in the Israeli army to save the Middle East's only democracy from destruction at the hands of the many Arabs who have fought for its destruction."

"I certainly don't expect to see large-scale immigration of evangelicals to Israel," Gershom Gorenberg, the associate editor of The Jerusalem Report and author of "The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount," said in an email exchange. "Nor, for that matter do I expect to see them eschew proselytizing, since that is a core value."

Support for Israel by evangelical Christians grows out of both the Biblical role that Israel plays for evangelicals, as well as practical political considerations.

Veteran journalist and author Frederick Clarkson wrote in his book, "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy," that in the 20th century, "most evangelicals" were "pre-millenialists - Christians who believe it is not possible to reform this world until Jesus returns."

The Second Coming is then "followed by a 1,000-year rule of Jesus and the Christians." That is where The Rapture comes in, which Clarkson describes as "an event in which all the saved Christians, dead and alive, are brought up into the clouds with Jesus prior, during or after (depending on the school of theology) a period called 'the tribulation'."

"The Israeli government has a long relationship with American evangelicals," Clarkson told IPS. "They have been cultivated as a domestic pro-Israel political constituency, as well as a source of foreign exchange through the tourism industry, so offering some land sounds like an effort to deepen and expand those political and financial relationships."

"While immigration of large numbers of American evangelicals to Israel might sound appealing to many Israelis - especially as further Middle Eastern wars seem possible - Rabbi Boteach's notion of inviting hundreds of thousands of American evangelicals to Israel with the expectation that they would not evangelize is silly," Clarkson added.

"Evangelization is what evangelicals are supposed to do. It is a central element of their religious identity that they will certainly be unwilling to erase."

In her seminal work on the rise of the Christian Right in the United States, "Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right," Sara Diamond wrote that the relationship between Christian evangelicals and Israel changed considerably when "popular broadcast ministries, especially those focused on studies of the 'end-times,' drew evangelicals to pay closer attention to Middle East politics."

Diamond credits Hal Lindsey, author of "The Late Great Planet Earth" with adding "Israel's security" to the Christian Right's list of political concerns.

Over the past few years, a number of veteran Christian right leaders have joined forces with Jewish conservatives to launch pro-Israel organizations. Gary Bauer - the former head of the Family Research Council, who now runs a group called American Values - joined forces with Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the conservative Jewish organisation Toward Tradition, to form the American Alliance of Jews and Christians.

Reed, now running for lieutenant-governor of Georgia, joined Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, to launch "Stand for Israel." According to press reports, Stand for Israel is a project they hope will have the same political impact as the powerful Jewish lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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