The scene would have been unimaginable throughout the vast majority of Jewish history. Row upon row of Christians shouting and swaying, fervently proclaiming their faith right in the heart of Jerusalem. But these Christians, on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, were not denouncing the scattered Jews in the room, or preaching of a time when control of the holy city would be wrested from Jewish hands.
They were cheering the Jews in the audience, singing in Hebrew, and proclaiming God’s love for the Jewish people and the Jewish state.
From Malaysia and the Philippines, the Netherlands and Ireland — even the West Bank — hundreds of Christian Zionists gathered in the Clal Building on Jaffa Road Sunday night. They had come for the 10th annual Day of Prayer for the Peace of Jerusalem, broadcast around the world by God TV, which reaches 900 million homes, according to its founder.
The diverse crowd was confident, joyous, articulate, and unashamed of its belief in the Bible as the literal word of God and its support for the Jewish people and the state of Israel.
The DPPJ began in 2002 at the height of the Second Intifada, as leaders in the evangelical Christian world met to create the burgeoning prayer movement. It has, in its short history, become the largest Israel-focused prayer event in history, according to organizers.
Every year, on the first Sunday of October, millions of Christian Zionists join together to pray for Jerusalem. The organizer’s goal this year was to reach 300 million participants. Most of the participants pray in their home country, but hundreds of worshipers came to Israel to participate in person.
Robert Stearns, the founder of Eagle’s Wings, is the driving force behind the event. A gifted singer and powerful preacher, the charismatic Stearns led the program, mixing humor with sermons and swelling songs of prayer.
“The conflicts that surround Jerusalem, the conflicts that surround Israel and the Middle East, touch our whole world,” he told The Times of Israel. “And so anyone concerned about the kind of future our world is going to have to believe that we have to work for peace in the Middle East, and that certainly comes through negotiations and through many different efforts. But maybe it’s also a good idea to take a day or more, a year, to sit back and spend some time in prayer and reflection to bring peace to the city.”
Stearns’s connection with Israel started when he volunteered at the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a Christian Zionist organization that sits in Jerusalem’s upscale Katamon neighborhood. He believes that a secure Jewish homeland will lead to a better future for all the peoples of the region.
“We understand the Jewish people’s right to their homeland, to live in peace and security in their land, and the need for all the peoples in this area to be treated with equity and kindness,” he explained.
Stearns has led all 10 days of prayer. “Baruch Hashem [praise God], we are growing every year,” he said, especially in East Asia. Worshipers from the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Korea, and Hong Kong made their presence felt in the hall, with pastors rising to the lectern to lead prayers in their native tongues.
While hundreds sang, stood, and danced together in Jerusalem, they were joined by many millions more around the globe. Over 300,000 churches in 175 nations participated, according to Eagle’s Wings.
The prayer guide distributed to participants instructed them to “pray for both Jew and Arab alike, and for all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” It asked worshipers to pray for “God’s promised redemption” to come to the Jewish people, for Israel to be protected from terrorism, for Israeli leaders to act wisely, and for reconciliation between Christians and Jews.
“Bless the people of Israel with Your promise of redemption,” participants around the world prayed, ”shield them with Your love, and bring them renewed hope for their day of salvation. Guide Israel’s leaders and advisers with the light of Your truth. For Your name’s sake, I ask that You remember Your promise and bless the Land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy. Amen.”
‘God has a blessing for not only Isaac, but also Ishmael’
Christian Zionists are regularly caricatured — often by liberal Jews — as uneducated, uncompromising fundamentalists whose support for Israel masks a desire to convert Jews and use their control over the biblical land of Israel to bring about the apocalypse.
There was not much Sunday night to give that characterization credence. Stearns insisted firmly that the conversion of Jews was not a factor in his passionate support for Israel.
“With great respect,” he explained, “I say it’s time to get over that. We’ve been here for thirty years, we’ve come during intifadas… We are not going to agree on every doctrinal point, or every theological point. But by and large the Christian Zionist community movement has a tremendous sense of respect for Jewish identity, and we are here to support and strengthen Jewish identity and a Jewish presence in the land.”
Even rank-and-file participants proved knowledgeable about Israeli politics. Pastor David Dekker, who has been a resident of Israel for thirty years working on Jewish-Christian relations, has three children, including two girls, who have served in the IDF. He and his children are fluent in Hebrew.
Margaret and Peter Jones, in from the United Kingdom for their second DPPJ and to volunteer in the city, claimed to not be especially fluent in the nuances of Israel’s political and strategic challenges. But they waxed eloquent on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s UN speech last week, and identified what they saw as key impediments to broader support of Israel in Europe- including British anti-Semitism. “I’m ashamed to see that,” said Peter. “Internationally, there are so many people against this small country. As proud as we are of our own country, we’re equally proud of Israel.”
The Joneses, at least, are against territorial concessions by Israel. “I believe very clearly that the land was given to the Jewish people thousands of years ago by God…through his covenant with Abraham,” Peter emphasized.
“We would not support any giving over of land,” added Margaret. “It does sadden me. “
Though many of the participants certainly believed that the land of Israel was given to the Jews, there was a great deal of concern and respect for the Muslims Arabs in the region. “We believe that God has a blessing for not only Isaac, but also Ishmael,” Stearns told the crowd to enthusiastic applause. “He’s an equal opportunity lover, and God’s peace will come when Isaac and Ishmael learn to live together.”
The theme of peace for the entire region was repeated throughout the night.
In fact, the only mention of radical Islam came from the one rabbi speaking at the DPPJ, Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat. He called on God not to “allow fanatic Wahabbi Islam — that stands for power and not for love, for Jihad and not for peace — to rule the world.”
“The word of God is stronger than the sword of jihad,” Riskin added to a standing ovation.
The only people pastors themselves denounced were Christians who advocate against Israel.
“Protect your church,” thundered Petra Helt, “from her church leaders. Who betray the roots of their church …who betray Zion, and give the place of your altar to thieves and liars. And protect the Christian people from their leaders when they falsely claim that Christians replaced the Jewish people.”
Though the event was unabashedly supportive of Jewish rights to the land of Israel and Jerusalem, not everyone praying for Jerusalem at the meeting was a Christian Zionist. Maher Canawati, a prominent Palestinian Christian businessman and city councilman in Bethlehem, first came to the event as a guest speaker two years ago. “Anything that goes toward peace… all the Palestinian people are with that.”
“I will be praying here tonight,” Canawati pledged, though he was not a proponent of Jewish sovereignty over Jerusalem like most participants. “I leave the final setup for Jerusalem for God. I believe that Jerusalem is for all the nations, capital of all nations. I will pray for the peace of Jerusalem no matter who is ruling over Jerusalem.’
Canawati was pro-peace as much as he was pro-Palestinian. “Palestinians should speak about the cause of the Palestinians wherever they can,” he explained. Though he doesn’t speak Hebrew well yet, Canawati said he had many Israeli “brothers.” “All of the Muslims love Jews. All of the Christians love the Jews. And the Jews love the Muslims and Christians. It’s not an issue of religion,” he said, rather optimistically.
‘You are the best friends Israel has in the world’
Broadcast live around the world, the 90-minute prayer meeting featured songs, sermons, and speeches. There was a heavy dose of Hebrew and Jewish terminology, with God often referred to by Hebrew terms as “Hashem — God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, and Israel as Eretz Yisrael. The Jerusalem Childrens’ Choir, affiliated with the ICEJ, sang in Israeli-accented Hebrew. “There is no other god in the world but you, there is no other salvation in the world but you,” they sang. “Shema Yisrael, hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one.”
Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Naomi Tzur gave a well-received speech on the city’s efforts to ensure that Jerusalem is a city of peace for all religions. “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world, and nine were given to Jerusalem, she quipped. “Of course, we got nine measures of many other things as well.”
Riskin, who founded the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding and Cooperation, followed with a passionate address. “We didn’t reach out to you,” he told the crowd. “You, my beloved brothers and sisters, reached out to us.”
“You are the best friends Israel has in the world.”
The event brought supporters from around the world, including many from developing countries. A group of women from South Africa made the trip – their first — to celebrate their birthdays.
Robert Eustagio was in from the Philippines for his fifth visit to Israel, along with his pastor. He had won a free trip after a clip of him praying for Israel received first place in a video prayer contest. He and Pastor Francis Nicholas thought it was too good to be true until they received their tickets in Manila. About half their small church ended up making the trip, a stunning move considering the poverty of the country.
“Remember,” said Nicholas, “the average monthly salary in the Philippines is $300.” The congregants took loans to visit and pray for Jerusalem.
One of their requests is that God see to it that the Jewish Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. “We believe,” said Nicholas, “and we even give money to groups preparing for the Third Temple.” But he does not suggest Israel tear down the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, which sit on the Temple Mount.
“God should make it happen. I don’t know how; man can’t comprehend.”
‘It sure feels good to hear from people who do want you to be here’
There were a significant number of Jews at the event, many of them wearing yarmulkes, in the crowd. For many, it was their first prayer meeting with Christian Zionists. It did not take long for them to be won over by the intensity of the support and love for them as Jews, for Israel, and for God.
Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, came on. The crowd sang it in Hebrew. Israelis sitting in the third row, skeptical and somewhat bemused until that point, took note. “Hey, there’s even Hatikva!” one of them exclaimed.
As the evening continued, the Israelis felt increasingly at ease. Helt gave a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces, similar to the one recited in synagogues across the world on Sabbath morning. When she asked God to “give to a Jew that what every Christian and Muslim and pilgrim enjoys in Jerusalem…the joy of walking freely and safely through all of Jerusalem, in the Old City and the New City, in the capital of Israel — and indeed that every Jew can live safely, walk safely, drive safely in all of Israel,” they stood and cheered.
And by the final song, the Israelis were dancing and clapping along with everyone else.
Natalie Solomon and Jay Schultz came in from Tel Aviv for the event. Solomon called herself “a friend and admirer of Robert Stearns.”
They run Tel Aviv International Salon, an organization that brings young Tel Aviv residents of all stripes together to discuss pressing issues. Stearns came in to speak to the group about Christian Zionism.
“It’s amazing to stand here as a Jew,” Solomon reflected, “who has fulfilled my dream of being in Israel, and to know there’s people that support that, when I know there’s so many people out there who don’t want me to be here. It sure feels good to hear from people who do want you to be here.”
“Now that we have friends, and they’re extending their hands to us, they need us to be here,” Schultz said emphatically. “They need to know that we’re grateful for their friendship. It’s as important for them to see us supporting them as it is for them to be supporting us.”