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With tensions high in Mideast, evangelical Christians tighten embrace of Israel

Meredith Mandell / Special to msnbc.com

Scott Johnson, standing in gray sweatshirt, an evangelical Christian from Seymour, Tenn., hosts Israelis at his home.

Thousands of miles from their home in Seymour, Tenn., Scott and Theresa Johnson host Shabbat dinners in their Jerusalem apartment every Friday night for "lone soldiers" — as the young men and women who travel from foreign countries to serve in the Israeli army are known.

Typically, 20 or 30 of the soldiers join the Johnsons for a traditional meal and wine and to join in a rousing rendition of "Shalom Aleichem," an old Hebrew song sung to greet the Sabbath day of rest. Scott Johnson leads the song wearing a "kippah" — a traditional Jewish head cover — and standing beneath a painting of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held prisoner in Gaza for five years before being released in October.

The Johnsons, however, are not Jewish. They are evangelical Christians who live in Israel full-time, operating a U.S.-based 501 c(3) nonprofit, the Servants to Christ Corp.

Servants to Christ is one of scores of evangelical Christian organizations working in Israel on a variety of charitable missions. And its presence is just one example of the increasingly tight embrace of the Jewish state by both the leadership of American evangelical churches and organizations and their grass-roots supporters.

Pro-Israel rhetoric — fueled in part by increasing tensions in the Middle East over Iran's nuclear program and the threat it might pose to the Jewish state  — is a staple of many U.S. evangelical leaders' speeches and sermons.

It has likewise become a popular refrain among GOP presidential candidates looking to shore up their support with the party's conservative religious wing.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, for example, recently made comments calling the Palestinians an "invented people" and has said he would support Israel if it decided to attack Iran.

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Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said such staunch support for Israel is fundamental to the evangelical movement.

"American evangelicals have it in their DNA: God blesses those who bless the Jews and curses whoever curses the Jews," he said.  "We want God to bless America and if America doesn't support Israel we don't have his blessing. It doesn't mean Israel is always right, it doesn't mean we don't remonstrate Israel, but we are going to have their back."

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That broad backing for Israel is in part grounded in a widely held evangelical belief that the existence of a Jewish state is a prerequisite for the second coming of Jesus.

Many evangelicals believe that when Jesus returns, it will be to Israel. The purpose of his Second Coming will be to destroy its enemies and return to heaven with his followers in what is variously called the Rapture or the End Times.

Under this interpretation of the Book of Revelation, the Rapture can't happen if there is no Jewish state in the Holy Land.

But critics — including some within the evangelical movement itself — say that such devout allegiance to Israel is also being driven by a more worldly concern: fear of Islam.

"We definitely believe they (U.S. evangelical leaders) are Islamaphobic and that is hindering them from having the right approach toward Islam," said Munther Isaac, an instructor at Bethlehem Bible College who describes himself on his blog as a Palestinian evangelical Christian.

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Isaac is a co-organizer of a five-day conference that began Monday in Bethlehem titled "Christ at the Checkpoint." The goal of the event, which is expected to draw up to 600 people, is "to equip the global church to understand Scripture as it relates to the Palestinian context, and to discuss the theological importance of Peace and Justice in an evangelical context." Among the lectures on the agenda is one titled "Loving the Muslim."

Isaac, 32, said many evangelicals and politicians who court them often make no distinction between radical Islam and the religion's mainstream: "The more we demonize Islam in our talks, in our books, in our sermons, the more we polarize them … it's like feeding the enemy and empowering the more radical voice, and we shouldn't do that."

But Land, of the Southern Baptist Convention, criticized what he referred to as "replacement theologians" within the evangelical movement who do not see the creation of the state of Israel as an act of divine intervention.

"Unfortunately, many people in the replacement theology crowd seem to give moral equivalence to Israel and her enemies and we do not see moral equivalence," Land said. 

He also rejected the notion that “Islamaphobia” plays any role in evangelical support for Israel, ticking off numerous deadly attacks perpetrated by Muslim extremists against Americans and others, including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in Texas and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

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"There is a dangerous cult loose within Islam called Wahhabism, and it's called Jihadism," he said. "It needs to be confronted for what it is and it needs to be defeated. When people are trying to kill you it's not Islamaphobic, it's reality."

Others are more direct in their criticism of Isaac and other organizers of the Christ at the Checkpoint conference.

"We think our support for Israel is a positive response from the heart, not out of a diagnosed or supposed phobia," said David Parsons, a spokesman for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a nonprofit evangelical ministry. He called the Christ at the Checkpoint organizers "misguided" and "dishonest."

"They've not been honest about why the wall and the checkpoints are there, and they downplay the terrorists' threats to Israel, and they downplay the persecution of Palestinian Christians by their Muslim neighbors," Parsons said.

Political tumult
Mistrust of Islam and its adherents within the evangelical movement is well documented.  A survey published last year by the Pew Center Forum on Public Life indicated that 67 percent of more than 2,200 evangelical leaders surveyed expressed an unfavorable view of Islam and that 47 percent considered Islam to be a "major threat" to Christianity.

But many evangelical Christian Zionists point to the current escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran, which Israel says is trying to develop nuclear weapons, as well as the political tumult and violence in the Middle East arising from the continuing Arab Spring uprisings, as legitimate reasons to be concerned.

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Rebecca Brimmer, chief executive and president of Bridges for Peace, a Jerusalem-based evangelical group that operates the largest food drive in the country, said: "I don't hate any people or group. But, it's like with (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad saying hateful things — if I quote what Ahmadinejad says, does that mean I am Islamaphobic? Or does it mean I am a realist that says this is what this man is saying and we should pay attention." Ahmadinejad has been quoted as calling for the destruction of Israel.

That sentiment has spilled over into broader forums.

Conservative American political commentator Glenn Beck last year organized a gathering of more than 3,000 people in the ancient Israeli city of Ceasaria for what he called a "Restoring Courage" tour intended to highlight concerns that pro-Islamist governments were springing up throughout the Middle East and north Africa in the wake of last year's "Arab Spring" revolts. While Beck is Mormon, the event drew a heavily evangelical crowd and featured evangelical pastor John C. Hagee as a keynote speaker.

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Hagee, a Texas minister and the founder of Christians United for Israel, revved up the crowd with these words: "People of Israel, we have come from America and the nations of the world as people of faith. God is with you. Fifty million evangelicals in America are with you. This time in history you are not alone. ... Your enemies are our enemies, and your fight is our fight. We are united, and we will prevail."

The belief that a military conflict between Israel and Iran is coming explains why many evangelical Christians, like the Johnsons, are also big supporters of the Friends of the IDF (the Israeli Defense Forces, a charitable organization providing assistance to Israeli soldiers.

Pizza in the trenches
Scott Johnson, who calls himself an ardent "Christian Zionist," says he is not ashamed to take sides. During the Lebanon war in 2006, the Johnsons took a van and went to Ramban Hospital in Haifa to pick up wounded soldiers and return them to their homes. They also went to the Lebanon border and delivered pizza, falafel and shawarma to Israeli soldiers in the trenches. And on several occasions they have hosted barbecues on their terrace for entire units of the IDF.

"I believe Islam is a threat to the world. It's a threat to decent, moral human beings. Not 100 percent of them, but the ones in control," Scott Johnson said.

Observers say evangelical support for Israel gained momentum after Israel's Six Day War in 1967 against Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Many evangelicals viewed Israel's victory against its Soviet-backed Arab neighbors with admiration, reminiscent of the biblical story of David, the future king of Israel, defeating gigantic Philistine warrior Goliath.

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In 1980, after the international community condemned Israel for declaring Jerusalem the "eternal and indivisible capital" of the Jewish state and 13 nations shifted their embassies to Tel Aviv, Christian Zionists established the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, to show their support for the Jewish state.

During the 1980s, the Israeli government began to organize all-expenses-paid "familiarization" tours of the Holy Land for evangelical pastors in an effort to cement such support. Evangelical Christian Mission trips and humanitarian tours continue today, giving the country not only moral support but also a nice economic boost. During the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, for example, roughly 5,000 evangelicals visit Israel as part of the Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, and 60 percent of Israel's 2.8 million tourists last year were Christian pilgrims, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

Historically, some Israelis have been suspicious of Christian groups inside the country, worrying that their aim is to convert Jews to Christianity. But given their staunch political support for Israel in recent years, most Israeli politicians now welcome them.

"I think why there is there such a strong connection between Jews and Christians, especially at the political level in Israel, is we saw during the (Palestinian uprising) intifada that one by one, the nations of the world were turning against us," said Joshua Reinstein, director of the Israeli Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus. "But Christians stood their ground and stood up next to us." 

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