Jerusalem March Disputes Highlight Growing Tensions

A massive annual march in Jerusalem this week raised questions about Israel's ban on evangelism as Christians flooded the holy city to take part in the religious festivities celebrating Sukkot.

Around 55,000 people participated in the Jerusalem March on Tuesday, including some 7,000 Christian tourists who came to express solidarity with the Jewish nation. The weeklong Christian Sukkot celebration, which the march was a part of, is predicted to bring some $15-18 million into the local economy – making it one of Israel's most lucrative tourism events.

Yet despite the economic benefits not all Israelites welcomed the Christian visitors.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, for the first time in 27 years, banned Jews from participating in the parade for fear they would fall prey to Christian missionaries.

"According to information that has reached the chief rabbinate, there are participants in this conference who convert Jews to Christianity and perform missionary activity throughout the year," said Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Rehovot, according to The Associated Press.

Representatives of the Rabbinate handed out fliers warning attendees of "missionary threat" and explaining why they are against Christians participating in the march, according to Israel's Ynet News.

At the beginning of the Jerusalem March, three American citizens were reportedly arrested after one of them reportedly disrupted the procession by holding up a large cardboard crucifix and shouting, "This is our march," according to Ynet.

"What law did I break?" Joseph Matthew Dolan from New York City asked angrily when police took him away, according to The Jerusalem Post. "This is my personal property."

The conflicts seen at the Jerusalem March are the latest examples of growing tension between Israelites who resent Christian presence in the country and Christians who disagree with Israel's ban on evangelism.

Recently, an Israeli cable company pulled the plug on several Christian satellite stations, including Daystar TV Network, which it claims are broadcasting evangelistic programs or advertisement directed at Jews.

"You cannot close down this station just because it is a Christian station," argued Israeli attorney Amir Vitkon in July when HOT Cable System made the decision to drop Daystar.

The Christian station argues that HOT's decision was a "severe violation" of freedom of expression and freedom of religion, according to the Jerusalem Post.

In August, American evangelical pastor and his wife – who have lived in Israel for nearly two decades – were ordered to leave the country over suspicions of mission activities. The couple managed a small Jerusalem-based ministry for the past four years.

Bans on sharing the Gospel coupled with recent crackdowns have a growing number of Christian leaders opposing blind support for Israel.

"There is a part of the evangelical family, which is what I call Christian Zionists, who are just so staunchly pro-Israel that Israel and their side can do no wrong, and it's almost anti-biblical to criticize Israel for anything," said megachurch pastor Joel Hunter recently to the New York Times.

Hunter and other leading evangelicals such as Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary; David Neff, editor of Christianity Today; and Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, and 30 other leaders signed a letter to President Bush in July voicing support for a Palestinian state made out of current Israel-controlled lands.

The Christian leaders wanted to counter the "serious misconception" that all American evangelicals are only concerned about Israel and against a two-state solution.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," they stated. "We, who sign this letter, represent large numbers of evangelicals throughout the U.S. who support justice for both Israelis and Palestinians."

Evangelicals are often said to be Israel's best friend and have been a strong political ally, lobbying governments to support Israel in conflicts with her neighbors.

Christian Zionists have also poured billions of dollars into Israel over the past 20 years. Annually, evangelical Christians make up one-third of American tourists that visit Israel – second only to American Jews, according to the country's Minister of Tourism.