Amid a wave of attacks on Christians and a series of protests against Christian Zionists in the capital, Jewish Israelis came out Wednesday to welcome Christians from around the world taking part in the annual Jerusalem March.
Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students and families packed the parade route alongside French immigrants, secular Israelis and teens with long sidelocks typical of right-wing settler youth to cheer as representatives of more than 80 nations paraded through the city in their national costumes.
“We came to watch all the delegations, everything that’s happening,” said Yedidya, a young man wearing a tight black t-shirt and a yarmulke. “It’s emotional, all the countries identifying with Israel.”
He said it doesn’t bother him that the marchers are Christians. “They’ve come to enjoy Israel. We’re enjoying together.”
“As long as they are with us, it doesn’t bother us,” said his friend Yosef, clad in a white button-down shirt.
They said they are against the recent incidents of Jews spitting on Christian worshipers in the Old City. The most recent occurred Wednesday morning.
A similar attack was captured on Monday, and was condemned by the country’s top religious and political leadership.
But there is a double standard, Yosef claimed. “If an Arab spits at a Jew, there is no chance he would be arrested.”
Wednesday’s march was the pinnacle of the week-long Feast of the Tabernacles organized by the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem. The attendees, singing songs of praise in their native tongues and in Hebrew, marched up Bezalel Street into the heart of Jerusalem as Israelis reached out for flags and gifts from the marchers.
Men from Fiji and South Korea blew shofars as they moved through the crowd, displaying skill that would make many Jews jealous.
“It is truly a joy that everyone is coming like this for us, for the Jewish people,” said Yossi, a young man with long sidelocks dressed in a black Hasidic gaberdine.
He said he doesn’t really understand anything about Christianity, but he sees their arrival in Jerusalem as a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.
“If they come as missionaries, it’s terrible,” he said, “but it says, ‘Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on My altar; for My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’
“In the end, they’re coming to Israel to say it belongs to the Jews.”
“It’s a pilgrimage,” said his friend, who asked not to be named. “We’d like to see more. We’d like them to come from America, to be with the Jewish people.”
He left no doubt about his feelings on the spitting attacks against Christians: “It’s not appropriate. It’s a chilul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]. It desecrates the name of Jews and the name of God in the world.”
ICEJ staffer Abby Bakke from the US said that she feels even more support for the march this year. “There’s an especially supportive energy.”
But the incidents haven’t gone unnoticed, she said: “There’s been a curious mix of more tension, but also more support we’ve seen from Jerusalem. It’s been warm, open, curious.”
The evening before, several dozen protesters demonstrated outside the Pais Arena stadium in Jerusalem, where the ICEJ was holding its Israeli Night.
Demonstrators, mostly religious teens, called out to those walking into the stadium, alleging that the ICEJ is a missionary organization, and held up a banner reading, “We should stand strong as proud Jews. Faithfully for generations!”
This year, massive delegations from Brazil, the Philippines and Fiji were joined by Christian Zionists from countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, including Algeria, Iran and North Korea.
A delegation from Egypt waving national flags sang in English before the march, but declined to be interviewed.
Dozens of Chinese Christians proudly waved their national flag, despite restrictions on religious practice in the communist country.
Ayala, a Beijing resident with a Hebrew name, said it was her sixth time in Israel. “It’s okay,” she said with a laugh when asked about life as a Christian in China. “It’s okay.”
“Israeli is very freedom [sic],” she said. “We came here to pray for our China country, and also support for Israel.”
Barry, a Taiwanese tour guide working in Israel, said there was around 250 Taiwanese and Chinese at the ICEJ feast. “Church is above government,” he said, “but this year Taiwanese and Chinese do not work together. Usually they do, but there is tensions between the countries. But faith is above all, I hope that faith will overcome the barriers.”
Though the delegations were not shy about proclaiming their faith and feelings about Israel, there were no overt messages of proselytization from any of the marchers or in any ICEJ literature at the event the night before.
“The ICEJ has never engaged in missionary activity in Israel,” ICEJ spokesman David Parsons told The Times of Israel. “The vast majority of Israelis we encounter know this and have warmly welcomed us for Sukkot once again, especially since the Hebrew prophets foresaw long ago the presence of the nations here at this unique and joyous pilgrimage festival.”
The first-ever direct flight to Israel from Fiji Airways brought hundreds of Christian Zionists from Pacific island nations to Ben Gurion Airport ahead of the week-long Feast, which coincides with the Jewish Sukkot holiday every year.
Larger and more violent protests against Christian activity in Jerusalem took place in June, as dozens of teen boys and men gathered inside the Clal Center to crash a gathering of Messianic Jews and block them from a concert being held in an event space in the building.
Weeks earlier, Deputy Jerusalem Mayor Arieh King led hundreds of religious Jews in chants of “missionaries go home” as hundreds of Christians gathered near the southern section of the Western Wall for a prayer event.
Evangelical Christians and Messianic Jews in Israel fear that the protest and other recent episodes of harassment in Jerusalem could turn more violent, as far-right Jewish anti-missionary groups step up their activities against them.
Christian Zionists form a powerful, growing bloc of support for Israel around the world. Their efforts have changed countries’ stances on Israel, brought funding and tourists into the country, and have funded Jewish immigration and humanitarian projects within Israel.
Attempts to convert Jews to Christianity touch a nerve in Israel. For centuries, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Europe were subject to forced conversions by the Catholic Church — and Orthodox churches to a lesser extent — on penalty of expulsion or death.
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