The story starts, in Jürgen Bühler’s telling, with a sick 4-year-old boy in his room in Bavaria around the time the Nazis came to power.
Both of the boy’s parents – Bühler’s grandparents – were not religious, leaning, if anything, towards Communism. His father worked on the rail line between Strasbourg and Vienna.
The boy had blood poisoning and was not going to live. One morning, according to the family story, he told his mother, ‘At 9 o’clock I will go home.’ At 9 o’clock, he smiled as if he had glimpsed something beautiful, reached toward the ceiling, and then slumped back in his bed. Bühler’s grandmother later told her family that she saw “a very bright presence in the room.”
After that, she began kneeling on her dead son’s bed and talking to God. She started to read the Bible. In time, a small community of believers formed around her. This was the milieu in which Bühler’s father, Albert, grew up after the death of his younger brother.
This week in Jerusalem, the International Christian Embassy is celebrating its Feast of Tabernacles, a convention and show of force held every year during the festival of Sukkot. Around 5,000 supporters have flown in to take part. Bühler, 47, is the director of the Embassy — which is not an embassy, but rather a Christian Zionist organization of significant and growing influence run out of an old mansion in south Jerusalem and with offices in 70 other countries.
Members of the expanding evangelical denominations in America and Europe, and increasingly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, have become important international allies for Israel, viewing support for the Jewish state as a matter of faith based on a reading of the Bible. Once considered a marginal phenomenon in the Christian world, there are now, by some counts, 600 million such believers in the world today. The Embassy’s increasing clout is one sign of the shift.
There are hundreds of different streams of evangelical Christians, but most share a personal experience of God that led them to be “born again,” and put the Bible, rather than church ritual, at the center of their faith. Because the Bible they read is made up of books by Jews and about Jews which take place mostly in Israel, a focus on Judaism and the Holy Land are a logical result. Many believers think the return of the Jews to Israel has a role to play — not necessarily a happy one, for Jews or other non-Christians — in apocalyptic scenarios linked to the end of days and the second coming of Jesus.
American evangelicals have long been providing support for Israel, typically with a preference for policies opposed to territorial concessions. Less known to Israelis are the expanding ranks of evangelicals in places like Brazil or Nigeria — Bühler’s organization has offices in both — believers who could increasingly affect policies in those states and others in the developing world.
Bühler’s story begins long before his own birth in 1965, with his grandmother’s experience of his uncle’s death three decades earlier, and continues through his father’s trials during and after the Second World War. It is an illustration of one journey toward a personal faith that has, for Israel, a growing political significance.
Bühler’s father, Albert, was 7 when the Nazis took control of Germany. Bühler’s grandparents did shopping for Jewish neighbors who were banned from the local grocery stores, until those neighbors were picked up by the Gestapo and disappeared. Albert was 13 when the war started.
He managed to evade a call-up from the SS in high school, but when he turned 18, in 1944, he was drafted by the Wehrmacht. That September he was at Arnhem, in Holland, when the Allied army advancing into Europe dropped British paratroopers there to secure its route of advance; the battle was later made famous in the film “A Bridge Too Far.”
There were so many men descending from the planes on the day of the assault, he later told his son, that the whole sky was grey with their parachutes. The Germans shot them in the air, and when they landed many were already dead in their harnesses. Albert was on his way into the thick of the fighting when his truck broke down and he was spared. He came to see this as a miracle.
After that, he was transferred east, and was in Slovakia when he was captured by the Red Army in May, 1945, when Nazi Germany collapsed. He was sent to a prison camp near Briansk, in Ukraine, where his comrades began to die of malnutrition and disease.
He, too, fell so ill with pneumonia that his friends posted a guard near his bed to chase away the rats; he was too weak to do this himself. He heard a doctor pass by and say, “He will die tonight.”
“During that night,” Bühler said, “he remembered the faith and the prayers of his mother, and he said: If there is a God out there, if you heal me and get me out of here, I will serve you my whole life.”
“There were probably a lot of promises made like that,” Bühler said.
Albert was still alive the next morning, and the one after that. A few days later the Red Army doctor in charge of the camp came by. She stopped by his bed and ordered camp authorities to put him on extra rations. He believed her order saved his life. He knew nothing about her, not even her name, but someone in the camp told him she was a Jew.
After that, he discovered a Ukrainian couple, two engineers, living near the camp, and they let him eat from their vegetable garden so he would not starve. They, too, were Jews.
Albert got back to Germany four-and-a-half years after the war’s end. He was lucky; by some estimates, one million German POWs died in Russian captivity. He kept his pledge, becoming a Pentecostal minister and helping to set up churches around southern Germany. Albert Bühler died last year.
His faith and his wartime experience blended in what he taught his children.
“My father always said we as a family owe our lives to the Jewish people for two reasons: We believe in the Jewish messiah, which gives us eternal life, and we as a family are alive because of those Jewish people who saved my life — the doctor and the farming couple,” Bühler said.
In 1991, Bühler first came to Israel with a church group organized by his father. His feeling upon arrival was less a sense of guilt over Germany’s crimes, he said, than the sense of thanks imbued in him by his father. He didn’t want to leave. After completing a PhD in physics at the Weizmann Institute, Bühler began working for the International Christian Embassy. Two years ago, he became its director. He has four children, all of them born in Jerusalem.
This week, he is busy shepherding the thousands of participants in the Feast of Tabernacles from a concert in the desert at Ein Gedi to meetings in Jerusalem and to the city’s holy sites. After that, he will return to the Embassy’s routine — funding projects like a home for elderly Holocaust survivors, arranging flights for immigrants from the Bnei Menashe tribe in India, waging occasional battles with Israeli bureaucrats who mistake Embassy staff for missionaries or foreign workers and have tried in the past to deport them.
Evangelical Christians have a track record of philo-Semitism dating back hundreds of years and making them markedly different from the traditional churches that have provided Jews with their overwhelmingly negative historical memory of Christianity, Bühler said.
“They have always been a tiny minority, which is why you didn’t hear of them, but they have grown into a very powerful force,” Buehler said. “This is something that I believe can give hope to the Jewish people and to Israel.”