Several dozen protesters demonstrated Tuesday outside the Pais Arena stadium in Jerusalem, where the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem was holding its Israeli Night as part of its annual Feast of the Tabernacles.
The protest came amid a rise in incidents targeting Christian priests and pilgrims in the capital — and a day after a widely condemned incident of ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on Christians.
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!”
Inside the arena, hundreds of Christian Zionists from around the world — including Egypt, North Korea, Iran and Algeria — danced, sang, and professed their love of God and support for Israel.
Though the gathered delegations were not shy about proclaiming their faith and feelings about Israel, there were no overt messages of proselytization from any of the speakers or in any ICEj literature at the event.
“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.”
No protesters managed to infiltrate the event, where Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel addressed the crowd.
— Lazar Berman (@Lazar_Berman) October 3, 2023
President Isaac Herzog sent a video greeting, pledging to protect freedom of worship for all faiths.
“We will insist on protecting all of the religious communities that make up the beautiful human mosaic of our country,” Herzog said, “and safeguard every site, religious leader, and human being from any vile expressions of hatred or intolerance.”
“This commitment goes to the very heart of who we are as a Jewish and democratic state,” he continued.
Yom Kippur War hero and former minister Avigdor Kahalani also addressed the crowd, as did a Holocaust survivor and Ukrainian Jewish refugees. Performers from Germany, Fiji, Iran, and The Philippines entertained the energetic visitors, who will be marching through Jerusalem on Wednesday afternoon.
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 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.
On Monday, ultra-Orthodox Jews, including children, were filmed spitting toward Christian worshipers in the Old City of Jerusalem.
קבוצה של צליינים יוצאת עם הצלב לרחוב שער האריות ונתקלת בקבוצה של מתפללים יהודים עם 4 המינים ואז מתחילות היריקות. ספרתי לפחות 7 בכמה שניות. pic.twitter.com/YjqaknATLw
— نير حسون Nir Hasson ניר חסון (@nirhasson) October 2, 2023
In a video posted online by a reporter for the Haaretz daily, a group of Christians exiting a church carrying a wooden cross were seen walking by a group of religious Jews heading the other direction. Several of the Jews then spit on the ground in the direction of the Christians as they passed.
The attack was met with wide condemnation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials, including politicians from the Haredi community, who rejected the idea that spitting was a Jewish tradition or religious imperative.
Some of the people in the clip appeared to be ultra-Orthodox minors who spit at the Christians after seeing an adult man do so.
The Latin Patriarchate did not respond to requests for comment.
Jerusalem’s Old City is especially crowded this week during the Sukkot holiday. Tens of thousands of Jewish worshipers attended an annual priestly blessing event at the Western Wall on Monday morning.
Netanyahu tweeted Tuesday that “Israel is totally committed to safeguard the sacred right of worship and pilgrimage to the holy sites of all faiths. I strongly condemn any attempt to intimidate worshippers, and I am committed to taking immediate and decisive action against it.”
He added: “Derogatory conduct towards worshipers is sacrilege and is simply unacceptable. Any form of hostility towards individuals engaged in worship will not be tolerated.”
According to police in August, 16 investigations were opened this year, and 21 arrests and detentions had been carried out in connection with attacks on Christians.
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.