Saturday, June 28, 2003

ARIEL, West Bank — Christians from suburban Denver dig into the soil here to plant seedlings in a vineyard as a blessing for the 18,000 Jews who have built a town on land Palestinians claim for their state.

These two dozen visitors are from a congregation that gives this settlement about $100,000 each year, much of it raised from selling Christmas fruit baskets. They believe Old Testament teachings in the Bible oblige them to support the Jewish people’s return to lands they left nearly 2,000 years ago.

“Pressuring Israel to do something contrary to God’s will is very dangerous,” says Cheryl Morrison, 58, wife of the congregation’s pastor, explaining why she thinks President Bush’s new peace plan is risky.

Christians who belong to America’s evangelical Protestant churches are among the most outspoken opponents of the U.S.-backed “road map” to peace that would uproot many Jewish settlers and establish a Palestinian state.

Evangelical leaders, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson among them, have criticized President Bush’s vision of Palestinian statehood.

Though not of one mind when it comes to Israel or the Middle East, evangelicals account for about a quarter of U.S. voters, according to a University of Akron survey after the 2000 election. If galvanized by a vocal leadership opposed to Mr. Bush’s Mideast policy, this bloc of voters could make a difference in his 2004 re-election bid.

Through rallies, Internet-based letter-writing campaigns and visits to Mr. Bush and his staff, evangelical leaders have made it clear to the president, himself a born-again Protestant, that they oppose the “road map.”

The plan got off to a shaky start because of worsening violence since its June 4 launch. Christian support for Israel greatly increased during nearly three years of renewed fighting between Israelis and Palestinians.

Some Israelis say they don’t want the support. They take offense at many evangelicals’ belief that there will be a final, apocalyptic battle between good and evil in which Jesus returns and Jews either gain eternal life by accepting him as the messiah or perish.

Looking for allies, however, Israel’s settler leaders have welcomed Christian backing.

It is not known how much money going to Jewish settlers comes from Christians because contributions don’t filter through a central body. Instead, hundreds of churches offer regular donations to about 50 West Bank settlements to buy school equipment, playgrounds, medical supplies and bulletproof buses, says Sondra Oster-Baraz, a Jewish settler who is the local director of a group called Christian Friends of Israeli Communities.

Another group, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, raised $20 million from American Christians for Jewish immigration to Israel last year. This year it is giving $2.8 million to welfare programs in 80 communities in Israel, in some cases triple the amount of funding those cities get from Israel’s Ministry of Social Affairs.

Now, some evangelical churches hope to halt the peace plan.

In May, an evangelical organization called the Jerusalem Prayer Team, led by 300 American church leaders, including Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell, set up an “Adopt a Settler” pledge drive. It aims to give $55 each to 14,000 settlers.

The group’s Internet petition uses the slogan “the Bible is my road map” and claims 10,000 signatures from believers who urge Mr. Bush to save the settlements and reverse course on the peace plan.

About 220,000 Israelis have settled in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Arab lands captured during the 1967 Mideast war.

Many evangelicals take literally God’s biblical promise to Abraham to give the Holy Land to the Jews. But they disagree over interpreting modern Israel’s rise as a harbinger of the Second Coming of Christ. And some Israelis worry that the so-called Christian Zionists could become an obstacle to peace efforts.

“They are motivated by a strong sense of solidarity with the idea of Jewish resettlement of ancestral Jewish homeland and are unconcerned with the political, demographic or other ramifications of their actions,” says Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee.

Israel’s government seems less concerned.

“This does not in any way bind the hands of any Israeli government to make decisions,” says Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Mrs. Morrison led the trip to Ariel by 25 members of the Denver Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colo. In addition to being the wife of the pastor, she heads the church’s projects in Israel.

Her group prayed, then planted leafy seedlings in the thin soil on the edge of town.

It has become a yearly ritual, inspired by Jeremiah 31:5 — “Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria….”

Samaria is the biblical name for the northern West Bank.

“The Bible says when the Jews return to the land it will bloom like a rose,” explains Helen Strait, 60, a retired high school Spanish teacher, as she buries the roots of a plant.

Seven years ago the Colorado church “adopted” Ariel, and through the sale of Christmas fruit baskets to retailers it raises up to $100,000 a year for welfare projects in Israel, most of it for Ariel. The church’s main project here is funding a center for about 150 children with learning disabilities.

During annual tours of Israel, the visitors also sing Israeli pop songs in wobbly Hebrew and perform Israeli folk dances for audiences of settlers and soldiers.

“We’re not anti-Palestinian,” says Rod Ginn, 36, one of the singers. “They have to have a place too, just not here.”

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