'The Bible is my road map': American Evangelicals visit Ariel, fundraise for settlements
Digging into the West Bank soil, Christians from America plant seedlings in a vineyard as a blessing for the 18,000 Jews who have built a town here on land the Palestinians claim for their state.
The two dozen visitors, from suburban Denver, are from a congregation that gives around $100,000 each year—much of it raised from selling Christmas fruit baskets—to this settlement, believing the Old Testament obliges them to support the Jewish people's return to lands from which they were exiled 2,000 years ago.
Christians mainly belonging to America's evangelical Protestant churches are among the most outspoken opponents of a new U.S.-backed peace plan that would uproot many Jewish settlers and establish a Palestinian state.
Church leaders such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson have been criticizing President Bush's vision of Palestinian statehood.
Though not of one mind when it comes to Israel or the Middle East, evangelicals account for about a quarter of American voters, according to a University of Akron survey made after the 2000 election. If galvanized by a vocal leadership opposed to Bush's Mideast policy, large blocs of voters could threaten Bush's 2004 re-election bid.
Through rallies, Internet-based letter writing campaigns and visits to Bush and his staff, evangelical leaders have made it clear to the president, himself a Protestant Christian, that they oppose the "road map" plan, already off to a shaky start because of worsening violence since its June 4 launch.
Christian support for Israel has greatly increased during nearly three years of renewed fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.
Some Israelis don't want the support. They take offense at the theological scenario envisaged by some evangelicals of a final, apocalyptic battle between good and evil in which Jesus returns and Jews either accept him or perish.
Looking for allies, however, Israel settler leaders have welcomed Christian backing.
There's no estimate of how much money going to Jewish settlers comes from Christians because contributions don't filter through a central body. Instead, hundreds of churches offer regular donations to about 50 West Bank settlements to buy school equipment, playgrounds, medical supplies and bulletproof buses, said Sondra Oster-Baraz, a Jewish settler who is the local director of a group called Christian Friends of Israeli Communities.
Another group, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, raised $20 million from American Christians for Jewish immigration to Israel last year. This year it's giving $2.8 million to welfare programs in 80 communities in Israel, in some cases triple the amount of funding those cities get from Israel's Ministry of Social Affairs.
Now, some evangelical churches hope to halt the "road map" peace plan.
In May, an evangelical organization called the Jerusalem Prayer Team, led by 300 American church leaders, including Robertson and Falwell, set up an "Adopt a Settler" pledge drive. It aims to give $55 each to 14,000 settlers.
The group's Internet petition uses the slogan "the Bible is my road map" and claims 10,000 signatures from people urging Bush to save the settlements and reverse course on the peace plan.
About 220,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arab lands captured during the 1967 Mideast war.
Many evangelicals take literally God's biblical promise to Abraham to give the Jewish people the Holy Land. But many oppose the interpretation of modern Israel's rise as a harbinger of the Second Coming. And some Israelis worry that the so-called Christian Zionists could become an obstacle to peace efforts.
"They are motivated by a strong sense of solidarity with the idea of Jewish resettlement of ancestral Jewish homeland and are unconcerned with the political, demographic or other ramifications of their actions," said Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
Israel's government seems less concerned. "This does not in any way bind the hands of any Israeli government to make decisions," said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Leading the trip to Ariel by 25 members of the Denver Faith Bible Chapel, from Arvada, Colo., was Cheryl Morrison, 58, wife of the congregation's pastor and head of the church's projects in Israel.
"Pressuring Israel to do something contrary to God's will is very dangerous," Morrison said, explaining why she thinks the new peace plan is risky.
The group prayed, then planted leafy seedlings into the thin soil on the edge of town.
It has become a yearly ritual, inspired by Jeremiah 31:5—"Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria." Samaria is the biblical name of the northern West Bank.
Helen Strait, 60, a retired high school Spanish teacher, buried the roots of a plant with soil. "The Bible says when the Jews return to the land it will bloom like a rose," she said.
Seven years ago the church "adopted" Ariel, and through a massive sale of Christmas fruit baskets to retailers it raises up to $100,000 a year for welfare projects in Israel, most of it for Ariel.
The church's main project here is the funding of a center for about 150 children with learning disabilities.
During their annual tours of Israel, the visitors also perform Israeli pop songs in wobbly Hebrew and Israeli folk dances for audiences of settlers and soldiers.
"We're not anti-Palestinian," said Rod Ginn, 36, one of the singers. "They have to have a place too, just not here."
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