Mixing prophecy and politics
Christian Zionists are growing in influence - even as they fight for policies their critics say work against peace in the Mideast. For these believers, it's all about fulfilling biblical prophecy.
Ray Sanders and his wife, Sharon, grew up on farms in the American Midwest, but Israel has long been their home. Their journey began in the 1970s, when they read Hal Lindsey's apocalyptic bestseller, "The Late Great Planet Earth," which laid out a scenario for the end of the world according to a literal interpretation of Bible prophecies.Skip to next paragraph
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"That awakened our understanding to Israel and its prophetic role in the Last Days," Mr. Sanders explains in his spacious Jerusalem office. "That was a real paradigm shift in our lives."
That shift spurred the couple to leave their jobs, attend Bible college in Texas, and move to Jerusalem, where in 1985 they helped found a biblical Zionist organization called Christian Friends of Israel (CFI).
With a handful of similar groups here they are marshalling financial and moral support from evangelical Christians around the world, and particularly in the United States, to fulfill what they see as their role in an unfolding final drama.
Christian Zionists, an Evangelical subset whose ranks are estimated at 20 million in the US, have in the past two decades poured millions of dollars of donations into Israel, formed a tight alliance with the Likud and other Israeli politicians seeking an expanded "Greater Israel," and mobilized grass-roots efforts to get the US to adopt a similar policy.
Christian Zionist leaders today have access to the White House and strong support within Congress, including the backing of the two most recent majority leaders in the House of Representatives.
For many Jews, the enthusiastic support of these evangelical Christians is welcome at a time of terrorism and rising anti-Semitism. Several Israeli leaders have called them "the best friends Israel has."
But other Jews and Christians have begun speaking against the alliance, which they see as a dangerous mix of religion and politics that is harmful to Israel and endangers prospects for peace with the Palestinians.
For Christian Zionists, the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham and the center of His action from now to the Second Coming of Christ and final battle of Armageddon, when the Antichrist will be defeated. But before this can occur, they say, biblical prophecy foretells the return of Jews from other countries; Israel's possession of all the land between the Euphrates and Nile rivers; and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple where a Muslim site, Dome of the Rock, now stands.
These beliefs lead to positions that critics say are uncompromising and ignore the fact that most Israelis want peace. "Pressuring the US government away from peace negotiations and toward an annexationist policy, that has a direct negative impact on the potential for change in the Middle East," says Gershom Gorenberg, a senior editor at The Jerusalem Report newsmagazine.
Two former chief rabbis of Israel, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliahu, recently approved a ruling urging followers not to accept money from the groups, warning that their ultimate intent is conversion of Jews. (Christian Zionists believe that during the Last Days Jews must either accept Jesus as the Messiah or perish.)
Other Christians in the Holy Land oppose what they consider a false interpretation of Christianity that is heightening tensions here. "Christian Zionism transforms faith into a political ideology, and one that needs an enemy," says the Rev. Rafik Khoury, of the Catholic Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem.
But Christian Zionists argue that Christians' role is to back Israel wholeheartedly and conform to God's message in Genesis: "I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curses thee" (Gen. 12:3).