Evangelist Pat Robertson leads pilgrims to Israel

By The Associated Press

Haaretz

Tishrei 18, 5765

Led by American evangelist Pat Robertson, thousands of Christian pilgrims gathered in the Holy Land on Sunday to express support for Israel.

In two Jerusalem appearances, Robertson praised Israel as part of God's plan and criticized Arab countries and some Muslims, saying their hopes to include Israeli-controlled land in a Palestinian state are part of "Satan's plan."

Robertson did offer a hint of rebuke for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for his plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Only God could decide on transfers of biblical land, Robertson said.

Robertson's views coincided with those of many of Sharon's own constituency, who oppose his plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements from Gaza next year. Sharon has pledged to push ahead.

The tourists, many from the United States, said they were not frightened by recent violence but only hoped to boost Israeli morale during their visit.

In a gathering of more than 4,000 pilgrims at a Jerusalem convention center Sunday, Robertson warned that some Muslims were trying to foil "God's plan" to let Israel hold on to its lands.

"I see the rise of Islam to destroy Israel and take the land from the Jews and give East Jerusalem to [Palestinian Authority Chairman] Yasser Arafat. I see that as Satan's plan to prevent the return of Jesus Christ the Lord," said Robertson, a Christian broadcaster.

Robertson, who has made critical statements of Islam in the past, called Israel's Arab neighbors "a sea of dictatorial regimes."

He said he "sends notice" to Osama bin Laden, Arafat and Palestinian militant groups that "you will not frustrate God's plan" to have Jews rule the Holy Land until the Second Coming of Jesus.

Only God should decide if Israel should relinquish control of the lands it captured in the 1967 war, including the Gaza Strip, West Bank and East Jerusalem, Robertson said, in a reference to Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza next year.

"God says, 'I'm going to judge those who carve up the West Bank and Gaza Strip,'" Robertson said. "'It's my land and keep your hands off it.'"

More than 4,000 people joined this year's annual pilgrimage, about 25 percent higher than the past three years, according to organizers with the International Christian Embassy.

The support was welcomed by Israeli officials, including lawmakers and government representatives who attended the gatherings. The visit comes during Sukkot, or the Feast of the Tabernacles, a seven-day Jewish harvest festival the commemorates the 40 years biblical Israelites wandered in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. The holiday is celebrated by some Christians who want to connect with their religion's Jewish roots.

Blowing rams' horns and exclaiming "Hallelujah," hundreds of pilgrims - including visitors from Norway, England and Germany - gathered in downtown Jerusalem to pray for peace and celebrate Israel's unification of the city with the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967.

Israel considers the entire city its "eternal capital," despite Palestinian claims to make east Jerusalem the capital of a future state.

Evangelical Christians are strong supporters of Israel, believing that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is foretold in the Scriptures and heralds the return of the messiah.

While the pilgrims are welcomed in Israel, the belief of some in a final, apocalyptic battle between good and evil - in which Jesus returns and Jews either accept him or perish - causes discomfort among Jews.

The Israeli government has forged a close alliance with conservative American Christians in recent years. Evangelical groups have contributed millions of dollars to Israel and lobbied in Washington in support of the Israeli
government.

Most of the pilgrims were spending at least 10 days in the country, visiting biblical sites in northern Israel's Galilee, Jerusalem's Old City and the Jordan River.

Some also toured Jewish settlements in the West Bank to express solidarity with settlers, who have frequently been targeted by Palestinian militants.

Marilyn Henretty, 66, an Anglican from Annandale, Virginia, blew a long ram's horn throughout the prayer session. She said she was not afraid to be in Israel despite the fighting.

"God said my feet must be in Jerusalem at this feast," said Henretty, a retired public affairs worker at the U.S. Commerce Department.

Outside, Avi Bardugo, a 33-year-old Israeli ice cream vendor, looked on with interest as the pilgrims filed out of the park. Many asked him for directions to Jerusalem hotels.

"This helps morally and psychologically," he said. "They are encouraging Israel despite the international criticism."