Wednesday, July 12, 2006

More than 3,000 pro-Israel evangelical Christians will be in town next week for a “Washington/Israel summit” to push the Bush administration toward stronger support for the Jewish state.

Starting with a banquet July 18 at the Hilton Washington and visits to Capitol Hill the next morning, the inaugural gathering of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) will showcase a deeper cooperation between evangelical Christians and Jews in the face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s suggestion in October, often reiterated since, that Israel “be wiped off the map.”

Organizers say Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon, retired Israeli defense chief Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon and Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman — all of whom are Jewish — will be at the dinner. Several members of Congress also are scheduled to attend, including Republican Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, both Catholics. Leading evangelicals that have confirmed their invitations include the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Gary Bauer.

Their host will be Texas evangelist the Rev. John C. Hagee, pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and author of “Jerusalem Countdown,” a 2006 book about a nuclear-armed Iran.

“There’s a new Hitler in the Middle East,” Mr. Hagee said in an interview. “He’s talking about killing Jews. He will have the ability to do so with nuclear weapons.

“I believe that the president of Iran fully intends there to be a nuclear holocaust. The only way he will be stopped will be by a pre-emptive military strike in Iran.”

The United Nations condemned Israel when it launched a pre-emptive strike in 1981 against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program by bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor. Mr. Hagee said American evangelicals must provide cover for Israel in the case of a pre-emptive attack — “as a last resort,” he specified — on Iran.

“We are not going to be silent,” he said. “We are organizing Christians from coast to coast to express themselves in the support of Israel. I don’t believe Congress has a clue how much grass-roots support for Israel exists in the evangelical community.”

CUFI, a five-month-old Texas-based nonprofit mixing evangelical fervor with biblical literalism, is his organizational vehicle. Its political structure spreads across 50 states — broken down by region, state and then city — to recruit activists and lobby elected officials on Israel’s behalf.

Mr. Hagee also is setting up an “Israel Rapid Response” network of e-mails, faxes and phone calls to mobilize voters. Such efforts have not gone unnoticed overseas. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz dispatched a reporter to San Antonio, who in a May 5 article labeled the effort “a magnificent evangelical industry.”

This spring, the preacher hired David Brog, 39, former chief of staff for Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, as his executive director.

“I’d admired him from afar,” Mr. Brog said in an interview explaining why, as a Conservative Jew, he works for a Christian organization. “I believe this is the most important thing I could do not only for Israel but for Judeo-Christian civilization today, which is under threat from radical Islam.

“We’re bringing into a pro-Israel camp millions of Christians who love Israel and giving them a political voice. Plus, Israel’s enemies are our enemies, and this group instinctively understands that.”

Moreover, converting Jews to Christianity, long a sore spot among Jews, is not an issue.

“All activities of CUFI are strictly non-conversionary,” Mr. Brog said. “Christians who work with Jews in supporting Israel realize how sensitive we are in talking about conversion and talking about Jesus.

“So those who work with us tend not to talk about Jesus more, but talk about Jesus less. They realize it will interfere with what they are trying to do — building a bridge to the Jewish community to insure the survival of Judeo-Christian civilization.”

For much of his career, Mr. Hagee, 66, has circulated in Pentecostal circles as a pastor and TV evangelist appearing on 120 stations broadcast by five Christian TV networks. After the Osirak bombing, he began building contacts among the local Jewish community, starting with annual “Nights to Honor Israel” around Texas. Over the years, he has donated $8.5 million to Israeli hospitals and orphanages and has helped 12,000 Russian Jews move to Israel.

Now’s the time, he said, to appear in Washington with backing by prominent Christians and Jews as the evangelical answer to AIPAC, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobby.

“For me,” Mr. Hagee admitted, “this will be reaching a new level.”

“Reverend Hagee’s organization is representative of the depth and breadth of American support of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said AIPAC spokeswoman Jennifer Cannata. “We definitely see this a positive sign.”

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