Christians and Zionists: apocalypse row in Jerusalem

Jan McGirk
12 October 2006

Like a fractured mosaic that can crumble under stress, the ancient walled city of Jerusalem often feels as if it might be on the verge of destruction. The place is held holy by Christians, Muslims and Jews and it attracts fervent believers of every possible stripe. For centuries, the sacred city on the hill has been bedeviled by its extremely potent sects' appeal. Mutual mistrust and old grudges routinely set off pious fury between religious rivals whose holy sites overlap.

Now, apocalyptical politicking has brought the squabbles of prominent Christian clergymen into the public arena, too. It's no wonder that some devout Christians suspect the "time of tribulations" is nigh and that doomsday soon will follow.

The three most prominent evangelical Christian groups in Jerusalem were left fuming after the archbishops of the Latin patriarch, Syrian Orthodox, Episcopal and Lutheran churches made a sudden and formal declaration against Christian Zionism. Their congregations are largely made up of Palestinian Christians.

The document first circulated in cyberspace on 22 August 2006, the anniversary of the date which had been flagged by Princeton's respected (if also controversial) Islamicist scholar, Bernard Lewis, as a critical anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed's night-flight on the winged horse Buraq.

Lewis hypothesised that the Iranian regime might be tempted to reenact the "divine white light" which is said to have touched the farthest mosque on that momentous August night, by unleashing a rogue nuclear strike to annihilate Jerusalem.

In the wake of a month of bloodshed in Lebanon, and ongoing military attacks inside Gaza, threat levels across the region were cranked up after this Ivy League academic concluded that mutually-assured destruction (MAD), the cold-war's existential deterrent, could no longer be a constraint. For jihadists bent on martyrdom, weapons of mass destruction that guarantee death would (according to Lewis) be viewed as an enticement to push the button. While bracing for a possible atomic Armageddon, Jerusalem's high priests lashed out at Christianity's Zionist wing for heightening the anxiety. When the next day dawned after all, it was like an answered prayer.

Jan McGirk is a journalist based in Jerusalem. She was formerly southeast Asia correspondent for the Independent.

Among Jan McGirk's articles in openDemocracy:

"Kashmir: the politics of an earthquake"
(19 October 2005)

"Thaksin Shinawatra: the end of the affair"
(4 April 2006)

"Thailand's king and that democracy jazz"
(12 June 2006)

"Israelity check"
(31 July 2006)

"A blow to Israel's heart" (16 August 2006)

A rift among the faithful

The Jerusalem Declaration on Christian Zionism begins by citing one of the best known New Testament beatitudes, "blessed are the peacemakers" - and then goes ballistic. It denounces brash Christian evangelists, who give comfort to Israeli warriors, for spreading a "false doctrine that condemns the world to the doom of Armageddon and corrupts the Biblical message of love, justice and reconciliation." It was signed by Michel Sabbah, the Catholic archbishop appointed by Pope John Paul II, as well as the Lutheran bishop Munib A Younan, the Anglican bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, and the Syrian Orthodox patriarch, Swerios Malki Mourad.

Three faith-based Protestant charity groups that have been active in Israel since the Ronald Reagan era were livid after these high-placed ministers branded them heretics. Earnest theo-cons with global reach, mega-bucks, and soft southern twangs had effectively been sandbagged online. A week later, leaders from the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Bridges for Peace, and Christian Friends of Israel posted a six-point group rebuttal.

The evangelicals scorned the Christian patriarchs for ignoring the Hamas government's stated aim to destroy Israel, and argued that denouncing Israeli "occupation and militarism" was only half the story. Showing solidarity with Israel should be seen as "a blessing and not a threat," they said. Furthermore, the rejection of literal interpretations of Biblical scripture enabled the persecution of Jews for 2,000 years, and "under-girded" the inquisition and the holocaust. So there.

Malcolm Hedding, an Assembly of God preacher from Durban who penned the Christian Zionist retort, also hinted that the priests in the old city may be pushing a hidden agenda: "These outrageous statements come at a time when we are gathering momentum. The high church is competitive and alarmed at our success. Maybe they are not so lofty," he told me. "We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I wonder why we were not approached first for a civilised dialogue over a cup of tea. We are not monsters, but Christian people. The apocalypse is a very volatile issue and they know it. The book of Revelations is part of scripture, and is not to be disregarded as irrelevant or fanciful. But airing Christian dirty washing in public is abhorrent," he huffed.

The rift is not helped by the fact that the come-lately Protestants have no claim to coveted Christian property that dates from the crusaders and knights templar. Key sites where Jesus was born, preached his sermons, performed miracles, or was crucified and allegedly resurrected were divided up long ago, and gospel-spouting evangelicals must visit them, following the guidelines of the established churches. "I was shocked to see all the icons and incense inside the church of the holy sepulchre," confessed Earleen Butts, an Oklahoma Sunday-school teacher who has faith that her personal guardian angel will ward off harm throughout her holy-land pilgrimage. Stylised rhinestone wings and a halo were pinned to her purple T-shirt and she clutched a plastic pint of mineral water from "Jacob's Well".

An Armenian seminary student at a cafe near Jaffa gate pointed out that the harshly worded Jerusalem declaration was signed only by a quartet of Arab Christians, and did not reflect a consensus: at least a dozen senior Christian clerics in the holy city failed to weigh in on the matter. The offended evangelicals posted blogs and lay low for a few weeks. Meanwhile, within a fortnight, Pope Benedict XVI's address at Regensburg University on 12 September re-aired the medieval notion of Islamic evil and eventually resulted in firebomb attacks on seven churches in the West Bank and Gaza. All Christians in the region suddenly were put on the defensive, even if the majority has little to do with the Vatican.

Jerusalem's divided heart

Religious disagreements inside Jerusalem can get ugly, and invariably reverberate around the monotheistic world. Ultra-orthodox Jews have spat on Christian pilgrims visiting the stations of the cross on the Via Dolorosa, and Muslim clerics have screamed vitriolic threats at Uri Ariel, a Knesset member intent on testing Islamic tolerance by announcing plans to re-erect a synagogue beside the 7th-century silver-domed al-Aqsa mosque. Provocatively, he affirmed his commitment by pacing out the construction site with a posse of armed guards.

Jews wailing prayers at the sacrosanct Western Wall of their ruined temple, which was sacked by Roman soldiers in 70 CE (Common Era), sometimes are pelted with stones from this mosque, which once had its pulpit torched by a psychotic Australian tourist in a purported attempt to hasten the second coming by burning down the Islamic structure.

No one denies that a welter of prophecies in the Bible and the Qur'an pinpoints this white stone city in the volatile middle east to be ground zero for the apocalypse. It is not surprising that security helicopters hovered overhead on 9 October 2006 when 100,000 people took to Jerusalem's streets in full ceremonial dress to show gratitude to the Israeli Defence Forces with a grand march.

Muslims were fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, and generally kept their distance from the daylight processions of Jews that sent the city into gridlock. Among the marchers were nearly 5,000 evangelical Christian Zionists, from eighty different nations, waving a motley collection of flags and striding in the footsteps of Jesus.

Some teens sounded an Old Testament ram's horn before hitting the pavement, and Christian pilgrims queued to donate their blood for IDF and settlement clinics. "Our support of Israel is based on the promise that God made to Abraham 4,000 years ago. All Jews and Christians believe that one day the messiah will come - so let us forget any disparities", said Hedding, who heads the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and welcomed throngs of Christian pilgrims for an annual Feast of the Tabernacles week. "Israelis need to know that they have friends," he emphasised.

Coachloads of Christian tourists stopped outside army bases near the Lebanese border, or toured the hills of Samaria and Judea. Others bobbed in the Dead Sea, crossed the barbed-wire checkpoints into Bethlehem, and Brazilians baptised one another in the Jordan river.

With friends like these

Most Christian Zionists pledge to back Israel against any detractors, to help repatriate Jews to settlements in the promised land, and eventually to stand by for Armageddon and ascend to heaven as the world ends. Prophetic Bible verses from both the Old and New Testaments add gravitas to their pamphlets and websites add gravitas to their pamphlets and websites.

Some secular Jews, like Tel Aviv banker Shelly Lash, view these enthusiastic new best friends as self-serving. "New Testament prophecies mandate that Jews convert or die before their rapture can get underway," she sniffed. "They obviously don't count on being our best buddies for eternity."

The Christian Zionist movement offers Israelis financial support from born-again Bible-belt Christians, principally in the United States, Germany, South Africa, and Scandinavia. Proselytising to convert Jews to Christianity is outlawed, although clandestine efforts to Israeli Muslims have been condoned by at least one cabinet minister. In recent years, since Binyamin Netanyahu's time in office (1996-99), Christian friendship and investment have been courted assiduously by the Israeli government, which launched a long-heralded Christian Allies Caucus of legislators in the Knesset in January 2004.

Josh Reinstein, a spokesman for the caucus, grumbled that Michel Sabbah, the outspoken Palestinian Latin patriarch, "is not particularly a friend of Israel," but invited him to educate some senators about the differences between Christian denominations. "We were ignorant about the particulars," he admitted, and confirmed that most face-to-face encounters are made with Christian Zionists who "give the Jewish nation political and moral support." Women's issues and visa problems are of particular concern to the caucus.

The burgeoning Christian Zionist movement has gained political clout in the US ever since Republican strategist Karl Rove galvanised the "moral majority" red states to vote as a bloc, spotlighting family values and contentious issues such as abortion rights and gay marriage. Christian broadcasting networks have been a godsend to the political public-relations industry, and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel is a reliable touchstone for conservative grassroots campaigns. The flock of Christian Zionists is said to number at least 400,000 (see Paul Rogers, "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage," 3 February 2006).

An article in the Jerusalem Post recounted the Lazarus-like revival of the American televangelist, Pat Robertson. It gave goosebumps to Toby, a messianic Jew from Baltimore who was staking out a high kerb so she could videotape her Christian friends on the march. The firebrand Bible-thumping pastor and former presidential candidate, who founded the rightwing Christian Coalition of America and has promoted Dead Sea mudpacks on his populist TV shows, has been selected as the new face of Israeli tourism for post-Lebanon war adverts aimed at the Christian right.

During the July-August 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel, tourist revenues slumped precipitously by 40% in Israel. Robertson has since drawled an abject apology for suggesting that God smote Ariel Sharon comatose in January 2006 after the old general agreed to surrender Biblical lands to the Palestinians. Robertson is said to be renegotiating a contract with a consortium of businessmen to build a $50m Jesus theme-park in Galilee, called "Christian Heritage Park", but nicknamed "Jesus-land" by cynical locals. The land will be leased free of charge in exchange for financing all construction and creating new jobs in a moribund economy. The landscape may have been peppered by Katyusha rocket-craters, yet this offbeat project is expected to lure at least a million more Christian visitors annually to the remote site where Jesus fed a multitude with a few loaves and fishes.

Well-heeled Jewish-American princesses cannot be counted on to revitalise the Israeli tourist economy unassisted. In the United States, Protestants outnumber American Jews by more than fifty-to-one, and the wooing has begun in earnest. Economic miracle-workers, at least in the short term, will take precedence in Israel over the second coming.

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