ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 190

Members of a delegation of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem pastors tour what's left of Kibbutz Nir Oz in January 2024. (ICEJ)
Main image: Members of a delegation of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem pastors tour what's left of Kibbutz Nir Oz in January 2024. (ICEJ)
'This is not some abstract conflict for us'

Turning the other cheek on extremist Jews’ incitement, Christians flock to Israel

Delegations and solidarity trips of hundreds of supporters from churches around the world are touring the sites of carnage wrought by Hamas while bolstering the survivors

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Main image: Members of a delegation of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem pastors tour what's left of Kibbutz Nir Oz in January 2024. (ICEJ)

Waiting out the rocket warning siren in the bomb shelter of Ben Gurion Airport, Jani Salokangas wished he could stay in Israel and not fly back to his wife and five children in Finland.

“I felt sad having to leave. I wanted to stay and do something,” said Salokangas, a 40-year-old pro-Israel Christian community leader, who was in Israel on October 7 to lead a delegation of 80 people from his church.

Four months into the war launched by Hamas’s October 7 onslaught on Israel, Salokangas last month returned to Israel with a new delegation from Finland, which he took across Israel’s south on a solidarity trip that featured volunteering, bearing witness to the crimes of Hamas, and much praying for Israel’s success.

His delegation was one of dozens of visits by Christian groups that are returning to Israel on solidarity trips — sometimes under fire — to the epicenters of the tragedy. Feeling inextricably connected to Israel and Judaism, the visitors view the war as the dawn of a new and closer Jewish-Christian alliance, which last year had been strained by the actions of Jewish fanatics in Jerusalem.

Those actions – including harassment of priests and pilgrims in the Old City and one vociferous protest rally on May 28 near the Western Wall against a Christian prayer service – were “concerning,” according to David Parsons, vice president of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. But “after October 7, it was quickly forgotten by most pro-Israel Christians,” added Parsons, whose prominent pro-Israel Christian group was established in 1980.

In a June Hebrew-language Maariv article, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem president Dr. Juergen Buehler described the May 28 events as unprecedented. “It was one of the few times in Israel where I feared an assault. I’d never experienced such hostility before,” said Buehler, a German-born ordained minister and physicist who has been living in Israel since 1994, and who has two sons serving in combat units of the Israel Defense Forces.

Jewish activists clash with police during a protest against a conference of Christians outside the Davidson Center in Jerusalem, Israel, on May 28, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/ Flash90)

The vitriol in May “was directed at people who spent a lot of money on a trip to Israel and it was a very bad experience for them in the Holy Land. I find this extremely regretful,” Buehler told Maariv.

The protest included several hundred demonstrators and was led by Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Aryeh King. The protesters, some of whom scuffled with police, shouted at the Christians gathered near the Western Wall to “go back” and “stop proselytizing.”

That protest followed a stream of incidents involving clergy in Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews have been documented in dozens of cases spitting on the ground in front of clergy and other Christians. Another such incident happened this month and led to the detainment of two people suspected of spitting on the ground near a passing Catholic priest, an act that may be prosecuted as a hate crime.

But the events of October 7, when some 3,000 Hamas terrorists invaded Israel and murdered some 1,200 people, among other war crimes, “have dwarfed the issues we had before, and really deepened the Christian world’s attachment to Israel,” Parsons said.

Jani Salokangas attends a pro-Israel rally in Helsinki, Finland in October 2023. (Courtesy of Salokangas)

“We’re talking about an emotional attachment that means that, when countless pro-Israel Christians get up in the morning, first thing they do is go and look for updates about what’s happening here,” added Parsons, who was born in North Carolina but has been living in Israel for about 30 years with his Netherlands-born wife. The couple have one son, who is 24 and was born in Israel.

Shifting attitudes among formerly stalwart supporters

The tension around anti-Christian harassment coincided with broader shifts reshaping attitudes to Israel within Evangelical circles, according to a new book on this issue by two scholars, Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin. In the book, titled “Christian Zionism in the Twenty-First Century: American Evangelical Opinion on Israel,” they show in a series of polls how support for Israel has declined among Evangelicals as support for the Palestinians grows.

One poll from 2018 of Evangelicals under 30 showed support for Israel at 68.9% and for Palestinians at 5%. But in a follow-up from 2021, support for Israel dropped to only 33.6% whereas support for Palestinians climbed to 24.3%. Inbari said the numbers may reflect “a youthful rebellion” by Evangelicals “defying their parents’ politics.” Social media, he added, may also play a role.

Hundreds of Christians demonstrate their solidarity with Israel in Oslo, Norway, on February 3, 2024. (ICEJ Norway)

Still, support for Israel unites many millions of Evangelical Christians worldwide and thousands of them are in societies where Israel is not very popular, like Norway.

Dag Juliussen, the head of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s Norway operations, says that the war is galvanizing support for Israel in Norway, where hundreds of people recently attended a solidarity vigil that the country’s Catholic bishops officially supported for the first time in history.

A 51-year-old father of three living near Oslo, he too left Israel after October 7 with a delegation he had been heading here. Like Salokangas, Juliussen returned this month with the first major Christian delegation from Norway since the war.

“We’re here to comfort the Jewish People, which is our mission statement, but we’re also here to bear witness to what has been done to Israel and its people,” said Juliussen.

Christians for Israel, a Netherlands-based group, organized one of the first post-October 7 delegations to Israel and has been bringing dozens of activists to the south even as Hamas was firing hundreds of rockets into it each day. One of the delegation’s activities involved planting tulips, the Netherlands’ national flower, in Sderot.

During the war, Christians for Israel has staged multiple rallies in the Netherlands, where Israel is standing trial at the International Court of Justice for genocide, an allegation Israel and its allies reject outright.

A long-term relationship

Many of the Christian delegations visiting have a longstanding relationship with communities near Gaza, to which Christian organizations have been donating for years because Hamas has targeted those locales with rocket fire since 2001.

On October 5, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem brought 600 Christians to meet Ofir Libstein, mayor of Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, near Sderot. On October 7, Libstein was murdered by terrorists.

Dag Juliussen, left, and his son Philipp visit Kfar Aza in January 2024. (Courtesy of ICEJ Norway)

“These are people we’ve known for years, these are places we know, this is not some abstract conflict for us,” said Paul Webber, a 60-year-old father of five who lives in Arizona. Last month, Webber headed a delegation of members of Passages, a pro-Israel group that has brought more than 11,000 young Christians to visit Israel.

The survivors that the Passages delegation met last month, he added, “seemed scarred, changed for life […] you could tell that they’re seeing over and over the horror that they had witnessed,” he said. “There’s no words for it. There are no words for the horror, the evil that went on there.”

Passages donated $500,000 toward psychological support for the survivors of Kfar Aza and Netiv Ha’asara, two of the hardest-hit communities on October 7, with which Passages has had a longstanding relationship.

Another $20 million for southerners in Israel came from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews headed by Yael Eckstein, daughter of IFCJ founder Yechiel Eckstein. That large charity relies on donations by Christians to help thousands of Israelis and other Jews annually.

‘There are no words for the horror, the evil that went on there’

The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem has raised millions more, some of which has gone to improving shelters and other war-related readiness activities.

“I hope that as Jews see Christians take a more visually present stand, the relationship changes for the better. I hope it brings us closer together as a family,” Webber said.

Juliussen from Norway, however, doubts that Christian solidarity will change Jewish extremists’ minds.

“Whoever thinks that Christians are really out to proselytize will probably view those acts as a missionary strategy, unfortunately,” he said. The way forward, he opined, is “through love that we Christians need to maintain despite the challenges.”

The war with Hamas has put the tensions involving Jewish radicals into perspective, according to Bishop Paul Lanier, chairman of the board of directors of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

A Christian visitor to Israel examines the remains of cars taken from the killing grounds of Hamas’ October 7 onslaught in Re’im on January 29, 2024. (ICEJ)

The May 28 prayer event at the Western Wall shocked and troubled Lanier, as had previous incidents of harassment, said the church leader from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “It was grotesque to watch persons spit on Christians who were moving through the street quietly observing their faith,” he recalled.

On October 3, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly condemned anti-Christian harassment and “addressed this,” said Lanier, a 63-year-old father of two.

“We have the luxury in peacetimes to nitpick and to get territorial,” said Lanier.  “I think there’s no doubt that the massacre totally eclipsed the issue, which I think is behind us now.”

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