LONDON — A seemingly unassuming husband and wife, Des and Remeny Starritt, are at the forefront of a new unlikely British initiative. Next month the Starritts are formally launching a UK chapter of Christians United for Israel, or CUFI, at a rally in Westminster, the heart of political London. And helping CUFI off to a rousing start will be Pastor John Hagee, founder of the group in the United States, one of the most thunderous of evangelical preachers.
The Starritts are quietly spoken and reticent — except when it comes to Israel. They were in London last week to take part in the annual Christian Resources Exhibition, which offers a wide spectrum of Christian takes and accoutrements, from different kinds of church furniture to the coolest sorts of clerical outfits.
And there, right in the middle of the exhibitors, is a stall emblazoned with the slogan “Christians Against Antisemitism,” CUFI’s first British campaign, with its logo of a burning Star of David. These evangelicals are clearly no shy British wallflowers, but an extremely out and proud group who are determined to get their message across. (To be on the receiving end of this passionate outpouring, as a British Jew, is slightly overwhelming.)
Des Starritt has given up his Swindon-based family business providing management and administration services to become the CEO of British CUFI. The couple’s three sons, aged 22, 30 and 34, together with their wives, are also part of the CUFI team.
Starritt was always involved in his local church, but says he was “reinvigorated” when he and his wife decided to attend a “prophetic” conference in 1998.
“It was held in a field in Dorset, 2,000 people in a marquee,” he says. “Be Not Silent, Day or Night,” chimes in wife Remeny, remembering the central theme of the conference.
“It had a very strong pro-Israel message,” recalls Starritt, “and for us it was a reconnection with the Jewish roots of our faith.” The Starritts began working with various pro-Israel Christian charities and eventually met John Hagee through this work. CUFI currently has some two million supporters.
“We were excited about what John and his wife were doing in the US and wanted to do something like that here. We’ve recognized the need for CUFI here… with the rise in anti-Semitism in the UK and across Europe. So we spoke to Pastor Hagee and we agreed that we would lay aside all our other activities to set up CUFI,” says Starritt.
At the moment CUFI has been set up as a not-for-profit organization as it has been refused charitable status by the UK Charity Commission. Starritt explains that the Charity Commission does not accept that CUFI’s educational work is balanced.
“We had too much of a pre-conceived idea of support for Israel, according to the commission,” he says, but laughs this off as a minor setback.
The Starritts have been regular and frequent visitors to Israel for just over 10 years, sometimes as private tourists and sometimes as part of evangelical tours of Christian pilgrims.
“For us as Christians, seeing the land reaffirms much of what we’ve been taught since childhood. We see our relationship with Israel as putting things in context,” he says.
Starritt is far from naive and is aware of the politicized attitude to Israel of many of the Christian churches in the UK.
‘We think you can be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel’
“We think you can be pro-Palestinian without being anti-Israel. Our approach is more grassroots and we think the churches shouldn’t be exclusive, one or the other,” he observes mildly.
For the last few months CUFI has been busy recruiting on social media and in Christian publications, with the aim of persuading 1,000 people to attend its June launch. Starritt steps delicately through the potential minefield of his group’s engagement with the Jewish community by declaring that CUFI’s work with the Jews will be “unconditional” and definitely not proselytizing. With some amusement, he says that even if there was be Jewish support for CUFI’s launch event, it being held on “the longest Shabbat of the year, Saturday June 20” may well deter any Jewish presence.
Besides, both Starritts insist, their message is one of outreach to the Christians in Britain, not the Jews.
“We’re not looking to get people singing [the traditional folk song] ‘kumbaya,’” says Des Starritt. “But we are hoping to develop a strong voice for Israel, an awareness of anti-Semitism and why Christians should combat it. You could say that this is, literally, a leap of faith.”
Remeny Starritt wipes away tears as she agrees. “We really need to stand up for Israel,” she says. It’s not the kind of statement typically heard in Britain: maybe CUFI will change that.