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Evangelical Christians are visiting Israel as war-time volunteers

Dutch volunteers Anja van der Stok, left, and Jannie Slim, right, pick lemons on a farm in southern Israel, as part of a post-Oct. 7 solidarity tour, Monday, March 4, 2024.   -  
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Maya Alleruzzo/Copyright 2023 The AP All rights reserved


**Evangelicals have been among Israel’s fiercest foreign supporters for years.

This is particularly true in the United States, where their political influence has helped shape the Israel policy of recent Republican administrations.

Since the Israel-Hamas war began five months ago, evangelicals have been visiting Israel in growing numbers to volunteer and help support the war effort.

Tourism to Israel has plummeted since October. The Tourism Ministry says up to half of those who do visit now come with faith-based groups.

Evangelicals believe Israel is key to an end-times prophecy that will bring about the return of the Christian Messiah.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry estimates around one-third to half of the approximately 3,000 daily visitors expected to arrive in March are part of faith-based volunteer trips.

Before the fighting, around 15,000 visitors arrived in Israel per day, about half of whom were Christian, according to Tourism Ministry statistics.

In 2019, the latest tourism statistics available that were not impacted by COVID-19, about 25% of visitors arrived on organized trips, according to the Tourism Ministry.

A study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that almost half of Israelis volunteered in some capacity during the early weeks of the war. But many Israeli volunteers have returned to work and school, and now international visitors are filling the gaps.

In the U.S., support for Israel has become a top priority for evangelical Christians during a presidential election year. They are among the most outspoken backers of Israel’s handling of the conflict, and Republicans have faced pressure to hew not just to traditional Republican support for Israel but to beliefs rooted in the Bible.

The war began with Hamas' attack in southern Israel in which militants killed around 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. Israel responded with an invasion of the Gaza Strip that so far has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

On Oct. 11, dozens of leading evangelicals signed a statement of support for Israel organized by the public policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical faith group in the U.S.

One of the key pro-Israel groups in the U.S. is Christians United for Israel, founded and led by evangelical pastor John Hagee. CUFI says it has raised and dispersed more than $3 million to support Israeli first responders, health care workers, and survivors of the Oct. 7 attack.

A two-week volunteer trip was organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. The evangelical group has put together five volunteer trips since January and expects to bring half a dozen more in the coming month. Normally, ICEJ brings about 6,000 Christian visitors to Israel annually.

Claudio Pichardo, a 37-year-old from Colombia studying business in the Netherlands, was inspired by Scripture to join the ICEJ trip. “I read the Bible and in Isaias it speaks about comforting the people of God, so here we are,” he said.

When the war started, many international airlines suspended flights and tourism stopped, aside from a handful of Jewish and Christian solidarity missions. Some major airlines resumed flights to Israel in recent weeks, and others plan to soon.

Peleg Lewi, the foreign affairs adviser to the Tourism Ministry, said faith-based solidarity missions boost morale. They can also kick-start overall tourism to Israel after a cycle of war or violence, he said.

With the war in its sixth month, Israel is under growing international pressure to do more to end the suffering of civilians in Gaza, including allowing in more aid.

Aid groups say the fighting has displaced most of the territory’s population and pushed a quarter of the population to the brink of famine. Hospitals have reported that some children have died of hunger.

Many Israelis fear the world is forgetting about Oct. 7.

Elizabeth Ødegaard, a trip participant from Norway, said she was surprised by how emotional Israelis get when they meet international visitors who have come to support them.

“I want to go home and be an ambassador and eyewitness of what I have seen and felt here, and yes, Israel- I am here to say forgive my country, on the behalf of Norway, I want to say I am sorry,“ she said.

ICEJ trip participants visited hard-hit communities in southern Israel, including the site where the shells of hundreds of burned-out cars are being stored, many from the Tribe of Nova music festival, where 364 people were killed.

During such trips, visitors join volunteer initiatives that sprang up in Israel over the past five months, providing extra hands for farmers struggling to harvest crops, cooking meals for families who have a parent serving in the reserves or sorting donations for evacuees still living in hotels.

One initiative is Citrus & Salt, which previously hosted cooking classes and tours of Tel Aviv’s markets for tourists. When the war started, it pivoted to making more than 35,000 donated meals.

“It really helps boost morale for people to come from abroad to Israel in a time of conflict, to physically say, ‘I’m here to help. What do you need?” said Aliya Fastman, a native of Berkeley, California, who has lived in Israel for over a decade and runs Citrus & Salt with her sister.

“Chopping onions is no small thing when you fly across the world to do it,” Fastman added.

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