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Evangelicals Mix Church and Jewish State

Prominent American Christian conservatives lead a nationwide prayer campaign in support of Israel. The push could help GOP at the polls.

October 21, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Along with the soaring hymns and shouted hosannas, Sunday services at Mount Paran Church of God carried a sobering whiff of geopolitics.

The 700 or so parishioners attending morning services at the church on the outskirts of Atlanta were asked to pray for Israel -- part of a nationwide effort among an estimated 16,000 churches to signal Christian backing for the violence-plagued Jewish state.

"The past two years of conflict unfortunately have reminded us that not only is there not peace in Jerusalem, but the very existence of Israel is being threatened by its adversaries," Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, Israel's consul general in Atlanta, told the congregation. Israeli diplomats also were scheduled to appear at church services in San Antonio and Bakersfield, where an afternoon rally involving 16 churches was planned.

The one-day prayer campaign was the latest in a series of high-profile events by evangelical Christians in support of Israel in recent months -- a show of solidarity that has gratified many American Jews but left others uneasy with what they see as an unlikely marriage of convenience.

The day of prayer, sponsored by a group called Stand for Israel, and similar events have brought together representatives of the Israeli government and some of the biggest names in the evangelical Christian world. A co-chairman of Stand for Israel is Ralph Reed, who formerly headed the Christian Coalition and now is an Atlanta-based political consultant and chairman of the Georgia Republican Party.

Organizers said Sunday's event was expected to include as many as 5 million parishioners from churches, many of them in the South, representing varied denominations. They said the nationwide campaign highlighted a long-standing theological bond with Israel among conservative Christians -- rooted in the Bible and dating to the Jewish state's creation in 1948 -- that has grown stronger since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and recent months of violence in the Mideast.

"What's happening is, a constituency that has always been nominally pro-Israel has since Sept. 11, and certainly against the backdrop of the intifada, taken that support and turned it into a truly mobilized nationwide effort," Reed said in an interview. "That is definitely a new development."

The support of conservative Christians, a key segment of the Republican Party, lends Israel-backers extra clout among GOP leaders and the Bush administration. At the same time, the visible expressions of support by Christians may help the GOP make inroads with Jewish voters, who as a group tend to tilt heavily Democratic.

"If Ralph Reed is working on it, I have no doubt that there's an electoral angle," said Bill Buck, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

Citing a recent survey, Stand for Israel said that U.S. Jews were warming to President Bush due to his handling of the war on terrorism -- 81% of respondents viewed him as a strong backer of Israel. Such a trend "could have an impact" on the next two election cycles, the group said, although Democratic activists give Republicans little chance of prying away Jewish votes.

"That's not why we're doing what we're doing," Reed said. "We're doing what we're doing because Israel is in real crisis right now."

Reed was in the first row at Mount Paran as regular services were interrupted for remarks by Yechiel Eckstein, a rabbi who heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and is co-chairman of Stand for Israel.

In a message of thanks sprinkled with Hebrew, Eckstein said Christians' support for Israel was gratifying to Jews. "After 2,000 years of alienation and separation, who would have imagined that I, a rabbi, would be here in a church in Atlanta?" he said.

Ben-Shmuel warned congregants that Israel -- the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity -- and the United States face a common threat. "The vicious and brutal attacks on men, women and children in America and Israel demonstrate that the war waged on us is not just a war against the Jews and Israel, but a war against the entire Western civilization," he said. The diplomat was greeted by long and hearty applause from the suburban congregation.

While key U.S. Jewish leaders have embraced the new closeness with conservative Christians during a time of trouble for Israel, many liberal Jews are wary of allying themselves with a group that, for the most part, holds divergent political views from their own on many domestic issues -- from gay rights and abortion to the separation of church and state. Some Jewish commentators have recoiled at making common cause with such figures of the Christian right as evangelist Pat Robertson (who recently announced a separate mass-prayer campaign and fund-raising effort among Christians on behalf of Israel) and the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

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