• ISRAEL \ Oct 04, 2001
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    Thousands of Christians Travel To Mideast In Support of Israel
Thousands of Christians Travel To Mideast In Support of Israel Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Undaunted by more than a year of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed and a worldwide security alert some 2,500 Christians from around the world, nevertheless, braved the bad reports and came up to Jerusalem to celebrate the weeklong Biblical holiday of Succoth.

The 22nd annual Feast of Tabernacles sponsored by the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem will be Israel's largest tourism event by far this year, expected to pump nearly $10 million into the local economy, hard hit by the past year's violence.

"With a year of violence we were anticipating a smaller crowd but we were still determined to hold the feast as the Bible says," ICEJ spokesman David Parsons said.

But when terror struck in the U.S., planes were grounded just as volunteers, musicians, dancers, administrative and technical assistants were on their way to prepare for the conference.

"Everyone was waiting to register," Parsons said on Wednesday. "We've had an amazing response in the last two weeks. Those who came didn't come for the entertainment, but they came because they're committed Zionists."

Traveling from such far-flung places as Greenland and Papua New Guinea and from such unlikely countries as Egypt and Jordan, the Christians came to stand with Israel in its time of need.

"Many of you came under difficult circumstances," ICEJ director Malcolm Hedding told the opening night crowd on Tuesday. "But you came nevertheless to demonstrate your love and solidarity with the people of Israel."

Large American Contingent

Some 800 participants from Indonesia - the largest Muslim country in the world - form the biggest contingent at the feast. Another 200 from Brazil, enthusiastically waved miniature Brazilian flags in the crowd.

Greg and Linda, from Charlotte, N.C., are among the 300 American participants and volunteers at the feast this year.

Dressed in the all-American costume of blue jeans, sneakers and patriotic regalia, the couple said they have been coming to Israel for 18 years and would not have missed the opportunity to visit again this year because of terrorism.

"It's just been something we've felt to do because of our faith. I'm not going to let the things that happened in the States stop me from doing [it]," Greg said.

"It's just our love for Israel. We want to stand with these people. For years Christians wouldn't stand with Israel, for 2000 years it hadn't happened in the hard times. But now when the hard times are here people are coming back. That's what these people are all about," he said.

The couple's two grown daughters, who have never visited here with their parents, urged them not to come, but they would not be deterred in their travel plans.

"I told them that if I die here then I'm going to die here doing what God has called me to do, to be here, to support Israel, to stand with them, to love the people here," Linda said.

Cynthia, from New Jersey who described herself as semi-retired, said her family knew they couldn't stop her from coming. She has visited Israel 24 times since she first started coming six years ago.

"I come to support Israel. I am a Christian Zionist. I'm not afraid. This is my fourth time to come to Israel this year. I come in to show my concern, my love and just say I'm here. I support you. I'm with you and I love you Israel," she said.

"Actually I don't live far from New York City from the Twin Towers. I take off from New York Airport so that added to the concern of some people who knew me. But I just put my trust in the Lord. I just go. I mean I could slip in the bathtub," Cynthia added about the danger factor.

"I believe in the restoration of Israel and that God is bringing the people back to the homeland that he has given them, that this is the fulfillment of prophecy as foretold in the Older Testament," she said.

"I'm not against Palestinians. I love everyone, but I believe God gave this Land to Israel. I believe the Palestinians have the right to live here if they so desire but under the sovereignty of Israel," Cynthia added.

About 70 Swiss are traveling on Israel's national air carrier, due to the uncertainty on their own nation's airlines. Swiss Air grounded its entire fleet on Tuesday due to financial difficulties stemming from the September 11 attacks in the U.S.

Official Reception

Packing Jerusalem's main convention center, the pilgrims were welcomed by a very enthusiastic Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In turn, he was greeted by thunderous applause and standing ovation, which one Israeli journalist remarked was much more than he would have received from his own Likud party.

Drawing on the Bible, Sharon emphasized the historical Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and thanked the Christians for their support and friendship in these hard times for the entire world.

"We are in a war here. We are facing very heavy war and struggle, and we are facing Arab Palestinian attacks," he said.

"The free world, led by United States, is also in a very heavy struggle against fundamentalist Muslim terror ... The struggle is the struggle of all of us ...We are not fighting against Arabs. We are not fighting against Muslims. We are fighting and defending our right and our values to live in freedom," Sharon said.

He said Israel had offered to help in any way it could and to that end had agreed to a meeting between Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PA Chairman Yasser Arafat. But there was a limit to what Israel could withstand.

"The world, everyone is happy. Arafat declared a ceasefire, but the fire did not stop for one minute," he said. "We are going to provide any help to the struggle against this terrible terror around the world ... But one must understand that we will not be able to pay [with] our lives for the appeasement of Arab countries because they demand it."

Sharon thanked the Christians for showing their solidarity with Israel in "these hard times" and asked them to continue to visit and to back the nation.