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.
"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).
To this end, Christian groups have sponsored the migration of thousands of Jews from Russia, Ethiopia, and other countries. They've funneled resources into social programs for Israeli communities, and they encourage churches in the US to support Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
"We stand for the right that all the land that God gave under the Abrahamic covenant 4,000 years ago is Israel's ... and He will regulate the affairs of how Israel comes into the allotment which is hers forever," says the Rev. Malcolm Hedding, director of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ), the largest of the Zionist groups with branches in 55 countries. Biblical Zionism rejects any effort to read the Scriptures spiritually or allegorically, Mr. Hedding says. "There is no such thing as a Palestinian," he adds.
Christian Zionism is a more recent term for a 19th-century theology that began in England, called premillennial dispensationalism. It divides history into eras (dispensations) based on a complex interpretation of biblical texts in books such as Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation. Most other Christian groups view these prophecies as predictions fulfilled long ago or as visions with a purely symbolic or spiritual meaning. But premillennialists insist they will occur on earth in the future.
Israel's creation in 1948 and the Six-Day War of 1967 - in which Israel captured all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza - galvanized premillennialists to believe the Last Days had begun. Mr. Lindsey's book, the nonfiction bestseller of the 1970s, popularized premillennialist teachings for millions of Americans and put Israel right at the center, says Donald Wagner, professor of religion and Middle East studies at North Park University in Chicago. Lindsey started a consultant business, Dr. Wagner says, which involved sessions with the Pentagon, CIA, Israeli generals, and the US Congress.
But Lindsey wasn't the first premillennialist author to leave his mark. William Blackstone, a fundamentalist lay preacher in the US, wrote a 1882 bestseller, "Jesus Is Coming," and in 1891 organized the first campaign in support of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Premillennialists in the British imperial government included Lord Arthur Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who were the first to officially promise a Jewish homeland with the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
In the US, premillennialist teaching has spread through TV and radio evangelists and, most recently, the "Left Behind" novels and prophecy websites.
Supporters range from avid believers to more passive participants who nonetheless believe in prophecy and watch for its fulfillment, scholars say. Such teaching may attract more followers in times of stress, observers suggest, as it offers one explanation for disturbing world events.
"[Christian Zionists] create a worldview into which people walk and don't realize how big a move they've made," says Martin Marty, religious historian and co- director of the Fundamentalist Project, set up to study worldwide religious reaction to modernity. There are sincere people in the movement who pray for the conversion of Israel but don't take up the political program, he says.
But he and others, including some Evangelicals, are increasingly concerned that many Christian Zionists have become activists whose actions could ultimately have serious - even disastrous - consequences.
"The danger is that, when people believe they 'know' how things are going to turn out and then act on those convictions, they can make these prophecies self-fulfilling, and bring on some of the things they predict," says the Rev. Timothy Weber, president of Memphis Theological Seminary in Tennessee, and author of "On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend."
"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."
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."
Americans for a Safe Israel has joined with other groups in a national One-State Solution Campaign to halt the road map, using bumper stickers and billboards displaying a White House phone number.
Members of Congress in sympathy with the Christian Zionist point of view have taken positions contrary to administration policy, which supports a Palestinian state.
House majority leader Tom DeLay (R) of Texas, while visiting the area, said, "I don't see occupied territory; I see Israel." Speaking on the Senate floor, Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma said Israel had a right to the land "because God said so."
In a 2002 appearance on Chris Matthews's "Hardball" show, former Rep. Richard Armey (R) of Texas, then House majority leader, proclaimed his support for "transporting" the Palestinians to other countries.
"In Israel, this position is regarded as somewhat like that of the Ku Klux Klan in the US," says Gorenberg. "These American figures are taking positions way to the right of the Israeli mainstream."
The debate over these groups is not whether they have influence on US policy but how much.
Deal Hudson, editor of Crisis magazine and a conservative Catholic, says their influence is overemphasized. "The administration's commitment to Israel was there from the very first day, prior to the coalition of Evangelicals the administration has cultivated for the past 3-1/2 years," he says. "Their role is only supportive."
Others point to many instances of influence. Gary Bauer, president of American Values, for example, recalls Israel's first attempt on the life of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi in June 2003, when Mr. Bush publicly berated Israel.
"Several Evangelical leaders took issue with the president," Mr. Bauer says. They urged others to let the White House know. "I got thousands of e-mails the next day that were copies of e-mails sent to the president. Within 24 hours, he [Bush] had modified his remarks and emphasized Israel's right to defend itself."
The White House was publicly supportive in April when Israel's second effort to assassinate Dr. Rantisi succeeded.
As a result of Christian Zionists' alliance with Likud governments, they now work actively with Jewish groups in the US, even though historically the two have been on opposing sides of key issues.
"Christian Zionist groups play an increasingly important role," says Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America and a leader of the Jewish lobby, AIPAC. "In many districts where there are very few Jews, the members of the House and Senate are Israel's supporters in part because of the strong Christian Zionist lobby on Capitol Hill."
Other observers say the Bush administration's tilt toward Israel in the Israeli- Palestinian dispute results from a coalition of neoconservatives, the Jewish lobby, and Christian Zionists - with the latter providing the grass-roots political punch as a prime Bush constituency.
Most worrisome to critics is the impact Christian Zionists are having - or could have - on the volatile situation here.
Some local Christians say they feel the impact directly. Thousands of Palestinian Christians - many of whom trace their family histories back to the early church - live in Israel and the occupied territories. They've survived as a minority among Muslims and Jews for centuries.
But because the Christian Zionist perspective is hostile to Islam and ultimately to Judaism, some now worry about its influence on their neighbors. They say some local Muslims now assume that this Western prophetic phenomenon - and its dismissal of hopes for a Palestinian state - is what all Christians believe.
For many Christian Palestinians, Christian Zionism is disturbing because its conclusions work against their deep desire: justice for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Many local Christians come from families who became refugees or were displaced within Israel when the state was created in 1948. Naim Ateek's family were driven from their comfortable home in the town of Beisan by the Jewish army when he was 11.
Eventually becoming an Anglican pastor, Father Ateek says he struggled, wondering how to keep faith alive among his congregation under the hardships of military occupation. How were Christians to think about "the God of Israel"? Is God pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian, or is He a God of justice for all?
After an in-depth study of the Bible, he wrote "Justice and Only Justice," in which he explores the scriptural basis for a God of inclusiveness. God's law requires justice for both peoples, Ateek says, and there won't be peace until that is accepted by both sides.
"If I as a Christian am not about truth, justice, peace, and reconciliation, then what is my ministry?" he asks in an interview in his book-lined office.
Ateek joined with local leaders from the 15 Christian denominations here - from Greek Orthodox to Quakers - to found an ecumenical movement, Sabeel ("the Way" in Arabic), which now works to counter extremism on both sides of the conflict.
It further inflames the situation, local Christians say, when other Christian groups provide resources to build and strengthen Jewish settlements on land confiscated from Palestinians.
For example, after the 1993 Oslo Peace Accord, which called for steps toward removal of Jewish settlements, Ted Beckett of Colorado Springs, Colo., formed Christian Friends of Israeli Committees. CFOIC enables US churches to support settlers through tours, funding special projects, and ongoing partnerships. About 60 settlements have identified projects for church support, and an "adopt-a-settlement" program encourages ongoing ties.
Sondra Baras, an Orthodox Jew who heads the program here, says she takes about 10 tour groups a month to settlements. "The Evangelical community is standing with us in such a strong way, and through financial support and visits have brought such a message of encouragement to those living here," she says.
This spring, Sabeel tried to provide a counterweight to such developments by holding a conference called "Challenging Christian Zionism." Some 500 Christians from 31 countries came to Jerusalem to discuss ways to check the growing influence of Christian Zionism. They heard also from Jews concerned about its impact.
"When political conflicts are framed as theological wars, we lose the ability to deal with them - the only solution is the final one," warned Jeff Halper, a professor of anthropology at Ben-Gurion University.
Christian Zionist ties to Jewish fundamentalists are disturbing to many Israelis, the majority of whom are secular, added Dr. Halper. The most explosive possibility relates to the prophecy that the Jewish temple will be rebuilt on the Temple Mount, where Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque now sit. Some Christian Zionists in America "are becoming quite involved financially and otherwise in the so-called Temple movement," says Weber.
When he talks to Christian Zionists about the destruction of the Dome of the Rock, some say, " 'Well, this is all prophesied - it's bound to happen,' " Weber says. Some suggest perhaps an earthquake will clear the mount. One predicted that "in an Arab-Israeli war a surface-to-surface missile aimed at Jerusalem will miss and hit the Dome of the Rock."
It's this kind of perspective that worries knowledgeable observers. Such mixing of prophecy and politics "could start World War III," says Dr. Marty.