Christian Embassy tries to win Jews' trust

Daphna Berman

Haaretz

Cheshvan 8, 5765

David Parsons isn't particularly interested in talking about a looming apocalypse, the biblical end of days, or the greatly popularized Armageddon. But as spokesperson for the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem (ICEJ), he doesn't have much choice.

Parsons, an evangelical Christian from North Carolina, has one of the more difficult jobs on the embassy's 55 person staff. As the public persona behind much of their work, he deals with the skepticism of Israelis and Christians alike, who question the group's unwavering support for Israel and their traditional alliance with the country's political right. And though it's difficult to convince many that he and the millions of believers like him are "not thirsting for an Armageddon" that's exactly what Parsons intends to do.

"There are attacks against us, Lord knows, from all sides, from all angles, and so it's time to clarify our stance, and explain that our love for Israel is pure," he insisted this week in ICEJ's headquarters in the capital's Greek Colony. "The accusations against us have come to the point that they aren't harmless anymore. Nothing has changed in our policy, but the need for clarification has been heightened. There are Israeli leaders who see us as telling them not to withdraw from Gaza and urging them not to seek peace and they start to wonder if we're trying to force them into some kind of confrontation. People are trying to assign evil motives to us and they label us and dismiss us as crazed."

There's an urgency to his message, he says, that hasn't existed before.

And so Parsons has decided to take the embassy's reputation head on and use their public festival earlier this month to set the record straight: the ICEJ does not proselytize, he says, nor does it pray for the realization of dark prophecy and a violent end of days when two thirds of Jews will be slaughtered in a convert-or-die-scenario. No, Parsons explains in a 46-page theological monograph the embassy distributed at the press conference featuring Pat Robertson earlier this month, the ICEJ's philosophy is not as sensationalist and violent as the headlines suggest. "You should start taking us seriously," he warned the members of the media gathered at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem. "Before you go mocking us, understand who we are and don't go lumping us together. We live here now and we're on the front lines; we're not living in some future period," he later added.

Parson's strategy is simple: after the press conference, he distributed booklets, including a brief description of what he calls "the media's bias" against Christian Zionists, hoping local journalists will take note of his appeal. The monograph is scholarly, with footnotes and a table of contents aimed at putting the "Armageddon in context" and outlining the history of Christian Zionism, in order to discount the claim that it is nothing other than a recent outgrowth of the American Christian Right, complete with its own political aims. "The Battle of Armageddon foretold in the book of Revelation is to be understood as one final act of humanity's rebellion against God and will never be initiated by or result from some dark hidden agenda espoused by Christians Zionists," Parsons wrote in his final appeal, a copy of which the ICEJ will soon post on their Web site. He's not convinced many people will read it, but its distribution is just one step in the organization's new-and-improved public relations campaign.

The ICEJ, which is directed by Malcolm Hedding and has a budget ranging from 6 to 10 million dollars a year, boasts membership in some 125 countries. "It's our great hope that God gives you the messiah He promised you, and as a Christian I believe that it's Jesus," Parsons says. "Who the messiah is, and whether he's come once or twice I believe God will reveal to the Jewish people."

An estimated 300 to 500 million evangelical Christians worldwide have become powerful political allies of the Jewish state. But some leaders in the interreligious circuit are cautious. "The problem is that the International Christian Embassy can't speak of a coherent ideology because it's made up of diverse denominations and perspectives that all share a love of Israel and the Jewish people," says Rabbi David Rosen, head of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. "Some people [affiliated with the ICEJ] are motivated by an aspiration to see the Jewish people convert [now], but they're a minority. For many others, their motivation comes from an ultimate vision of the second coming and the eventual conversion of all Jews."

According to Rosen, a "genuine love of Israel" is the primary motivation behind the ICEJ, but he warns that it would be "foolhardy" for any Jewish organization to ignore the movement's "eschatological anticipation for conversion of Jews." Still, he insists that their ultimate religious goals should not interfere with Israel's appreciation for the support - both political and financial - that they consistently offer.

Representatives from the ultra-Orthodox anti-missionary group Yad L'Achim, though, are less kind in their assessment of the ICEJ, and say that the ICEJ's distancing from the vision of Armageddon and their professed love for the Jewish people are part of a larger ploy aimed at converting Jews. "For hundreds of years, Christianity tried to convert Jews, but were unsuccessful," Aharon Rubin a representative of the organization in Jerusalem said. "They've finally begun to realize that they can't stuff Christianity down people's throats with violence and pogroms. They start to love us and support us so that we won't be afraid, and then they try to convert us."

Parsons says that he understands the Jews' collective "wounds" and cannot expect to regain their complete trust overnight. "It's understandable that Jews have a suspicion when Christians say `hey, we love you'. But you don't have to be afraid of us, and we're trying to prove that our love is genuine." Besides, he adds, "we're the only true friends Israel has left."