The feet of Brazilian evangelical Christian worshippers are seen during a mass baptism ceremony in the Jordan River, where according to the Bible Jesus Christ was baptized, in 2006. (Kevin Frayer/AP/File)
Israel is ramping up its outreach to the growing numbers of evangelical Christians, particularly in the Global South, in order to build popular support for state policies.
On a crisp winter morning in Jerusalem, a group of American Christian leaders with Bibles under their arms walk the hilltop where many believe King David first established the Jewish capital some 3,000 years ago.
As they make their way along the rocky paths of the City of David, a vast archaeological dig still in process, a radio host with 70,000 listeners tweets every step of the way while an Anglican pastor with an Israeli flag on his iPhone screen says he's "absolutely hoping" to bring a group of his own next year. Though the dig weaves through, and sometimes under, the homes of disgruntled Palestinian residents in this highly contested part of East Jerusalem, no one mentions that another people also lay claim to this holy city.
Many of these influential Christians, brought over by the Chicago branch of Israel's Ministry of Tourism, plan to bring their many followers here - or already have. They are part of a growing band of Christians around the world who see support for Israel as a divine calling, some of whom are motivated by apocalyptic urgency.
Increasingly, Israel is not only cultivating their love of the Holy Land but also courting their political support, with some proponents calling such faith-based diplomacy the most powerful weapon in Israel's diplomatic arsenal - though its precise capabilities and range remain to be fully proven.
"You folks here are the best offense and defense we could ever have," Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat told an overflow crowd at the seventh annual Night to Honor Our Christian Allies, held last month at the city's prestigious King David Hotel. "Enjoy the city of Jerusalem ... and go back home as strong ambassadors of the state of Israel and the city of Jerusalem."
While this largely evangelical movement is most well organized in the US, its most rapid growth is coming from developing countries like Brazil and Nigeria, which have not traditionally supported the Jewish state. Israel, very much conscious of the welcome support this could yield in forums like the United Nations, is tapping into the shared religious heritage of Judaism and Christianity to boost everything from tourism to Israel's standing on the world stage.
"There is a new dynamic taking place in our world where [Christian supporters] are growing in a dramatic way, who are standing with the nation of Israel like never before," said Jürgen Bühler, executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, which has expanded to 80 branches around the world since its inception in 1980. "I believe this meeting today in Jerusalem in a way symbolizes, encapsulates, this dynamic movement that is taking place, that a new breed of Christianity is growing up which will stand with the nation of Israel no matter what."
Growth In Evangelical Protestants
The growth in supporters from developing countries is the result of two unrelated phenomenon, says David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel (CUFI). "You're getting a growth of the potential base ... and then you're getting an increasing percentage of the actual base expressing support for Israel," says Mr. Brog. "Those two phenomenon are responsible for expressions of support from countries that have been fairly neutral or silent, such as Brazil, South Korea, and Nigeria."
The growth in the potential base that Brog mentions is driven largely by the tremendous increase of evangelicals, particularly Pentecostals, around the world. Since 1970, the percentage of Pentecostals and charismatic Christians in Latin America alone has grown nearly seven-fold, from 4.4 percent of the total population to 28 percent in 2005, according to a report on global Pentecostalism by the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life.
In Africa the percentage of such Christians more than tripled during the same period, from less than 5 percent to 17 percent.
While the reasons for a growth in support for Israel are harder to quantify, the work of individuals like Renê Terra Nova - one of two Christian leaders honored at the recent event in Jerusalem - is certainly part of the equation. Mr. Terra Nova, the national director of ICEJ-Brazil, oversees a network of Latin American churches with an estimated 6 million followers, and has brought tens of thousands of Christians to Israel over the past two decades either on his own tours or those led by pastors under him. Some have come as many as 30 times.
Eyal Carlin, who co-launched the Israeli Ministry of Tourism's religious tourism desk two years ago, singles out Brazil as one of their fastest-growing markets for Christian tourists, along with Indonesia and China, which saw a growth of 68 percent and 49 percent respectively from 2010 to 2012. He says the ministry has improved its use of social media and other digital platforms to attract Christians, more so than other markets, and has used roughly half of its hosting budget - some 10 million shekels ($2.7 million) last year - to target influential Christian leaders who will in turn bring their own followers.
"In general, it's one of our objectives to bring as many church leadership or media groups to Israel as possible that influence decisionmaking in their organizations," he says.
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SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor