Oct. 19, 2004
US churches pray for Israel

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

At a time when some Christian denominations are moving toward divestment from companies that do business with Israel, millions of Christians in thousands of churches across America directed their prayers eastward on Sunday in a national day of prayer and solidarity with Israel.

Organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the day of prayer enlisted thousands of evangelical churches in a drive to increase support for Israel both spiritually and materially. More than 15,000 churches participated, according to the fellowship, and Israeli government representatives fanned out across the country to deliver messages to the church crowds, some of which numbered in the thousands.

"It was tremendous," said John Avant, pastor at the New Hope Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Georgia. "Everybody there felt it was a rich, wonderful time of fellowship, love and prayer."

The service included the rabbi and congregants of a so-called messianic synagogue, which just began holding services at the church last week, Avant said. "It was really wonderful to watch both Christians and Jews who believe Jesus is the messiah and those who don't pray together for Israel," he said.

"Our people were overwhelmed," said Steven Ferguson, pastor at the Anchor of Hope Baptist Church in Rossville, Georgia, which gave a spontaneous standing ovation to Israeli consular officials who attended the church service. "Heiveinu shalom aleichem," Ferguson said in his thick southern drawl. "We're going to stand with Israel until Jesus Christ comes."

The Baptist church, which numbered 40 people when it was founded six years ago, now is up to about 1,000, and church leaders have made Israel a top priority. Ferguson regularly incorporates Hebrew prayers into his sermons and teachings, and aid to Israel tops the list of 103 mission projects the church supports around the world, including aid to Jews from the former Soviet Union and humanitarian projects in Nicaragua, Haiti and war-torn African countries.

"God has placed in my heart a love for Israel," Ferguson said. "We pray for Jerusalem every day. The Bible clearly tells us in Genesis, chapter 12, verse three: 'I'll bless them that bless thee and curse them that curseth thee.'"

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says that's the religious reason most evangelical Christians cite for their support of the Jewish state. Because the Bible occupies such a central place in evangelical Christianity-much more so than in mainline Catholicism or Protestantism-this element of religious faith has become very important to evangelical Christians, he said.

It is a trend that Israeli officials regularly encourage, despite the reticence of many American Jewish organizations to embrace evangelical support for Israel.

"Our concern is that we don't share an agenda on many of the other issues critical to us, and we have concerns about that theology-both the superstitious theology of Armageddon, and the implication that this is a religious battle, a biblical battle," said David Elcott, the American Jewish Committee's director of interreligious affairs. "For Jews, it's very uncomfortable for us."

Many evangelical churches also blur the line between mainline Christian theology and Judaism. At the Faith Temple in Middlesboro, Kentucky, for example, the church opens services with a shofar blast and marks Jewish festivals like Passover and Rosh Hashanah, which it calls the Feast of the Trumpets.

"We have a very Jewish-friendly church here," said Faith Temple's pastor, Matthew Robbins. "During the Feast of the Trumpets for example, our men set aside time to go to the mountains, and we fast and pray and seek God."

Don Cobble, pastor of the Kaleo Christian Center, located in a Boston suburb, said he encourages daily prayer for Israel in his congregation, which includes Christian Arabs, Asians, Germans and a "handful of Jewish believers in the messiah."

"We believe the messiah is going to come and rule and reign in this world from Jerusalem," Cobble said. "Right now Israel is having to stand their ground because it's a responsibility and burden that God has given them. Therefore, when we support Israel we're saying: We support the decision of God, whether or not I disagree or agree with something political or something the Jews have done. If I stand against them, I'm standing against what God has chosen. That's our perspective."

Sunday's prayer day was the fellowship's third annual Israel solidarity day, and ever more diverse churches join every year, fellowship officials said.

Brenda Warren, a member of Ambassadors for Christ, a predominantly black church in metropolitan Detroit, said Sunday's service helped refocus her priorities in prayer.

"Sometimes we forget about what's so important to God," she said. "I don't pray every day for the peace of Israel and Jerusalem-but this morning it came to me that it's important I pray for this every day, because the Jews are the people that God has chosen.

Everything that's going on in my life is important to God, but it's important that I pray for this too."

Bill Morgan, a carpet wholesaler who attended one of Sunday's special church services in his native Georgia, said he supports financially the aliyah of 50 Jews per year from the former Soviet Union, at a cost of $350 per person. Inspired by a Belgian gentile who was sent to a Nazi concentration camp for hiding Jews during the Holocaust, Morgan says his goal is to bring 1,000 Jews to Israel-more than Oskar Schinder. So far, he says, he's brought 442.

Eventually, he believes, God will repatriate the Jewish people to the entirety of the Land of Israel. "One day they'll have that land," he said. "It's coming."