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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.

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"Before the Six-Day War, dispensationalists were content to sit in the bleachers of history explaining the End-Time game on the field below, pointing out events and identifying players," Dr. Weber adds. "But after expansion of Israel into the West Bank and Gaza, they began to get down onto the field and be sure the teams lined up right, becoming involved in political, financial, and religious ways they never had before."

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A confluence of events in the 1970s and '80s set the stage for the current activism. After the 1967 war, Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants joined the international consensus that Israel should give up the occupied territories for peace; a growing Evangelical community became more politically active; and for the first time the Likud Party came to power in Israel with an aim to hold on to "Judea and Samaria" (the biblical terms for the West Bank).

A 1978 study by an Israeli scholar on American fundamentalist churches helped spur the Likud Party's courting of Christian Zionist leaders, such as the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, according to Clifford Kiracofe, a former senior staff member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Since then, Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ariel Sharon have addressed Christian Zionist gatherings of thousands in Jerusalem and met with evangelical leaders and groups during trips to the US.

Evangelical leaders began traveling to Israel and organizing tours for churches from across the US. Today a network of more than 200 pro-Israel grass-roots organizations has developed in the US, and Christian Zionist groups work to involve American congregations in prayer, financial aid, and advocacy.

For Ray Sanders and thousands of US churchgoers, their role is to learn how best to bless Israel.

"We take that injunction very seriously, and we want the Jewish people to realize the goodwill we have toward them, contrary to centuries of anti-Semitic history," he says. CFI runs several humanitarian projects, including a distribution center for the needy in Jerusalem, where donations from the US have provided clothing and household items for 250,000 people.

The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which draws support from the Christian Zionist community, holds an annual Day of Prayer for Israel that last year involved 18,000 US churches. Since fundraising began eight years ago, individuals and churches have contributed about $100 million in humanitarian aid for Israeli social programs ($20 million in the past year alone), and sponsored 100,000 émigrés from Russia and Ethiopia, says Yechiel Eckstein, who founded the group with an evangelical pastor.

"We have 350,000 donors who support this work, and we get 2,000 to 2,500 checks in the mail a day," he says of IFCJ, based in Chicago and Jerusalem. Rabbi Eckstein travels to several continents to educate congregations on the Jewish roots of Christianity and to urge advocacy for Israel. When the International Court at The Hague debated the legality of the wall Israel is building on the West Bank, he rallied a thousand Christians to march in protest outside the court building.

Republican Party strategist Ralph Reed has joined with Eckstein to form Stand for Israel, a project to build grass-roots advocacy for Israel among US Christians.

Christians' Israel Public Action Committee (CIPAC) lobbies Congress to oppose any limitation on Israel's action, including President Bush's peace proposal, the "road map." Richard Hellman, CIPAC head, recently called on US leaders "to desist from proposing any more plans to settle the Israel-Arab dispute."

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