Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) – Thousands of Christians from around the world are gathering in Jerusalem this week to celebrate the Biblical festival of Succoth.
More than 7,000 Christians from about 100 nations are attending the International Christian Embassy’s annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration, which coincides with the Jewish holiday and is Israel’s largest single tourism event each year. The pilgrims will spend an estimated $18 million here.
“In the middle of a global financial meltdown, this Feast is one of the biggest and it’s paid for already. We have covered our costs,” Malcolm Hedding, executive director of the ICEJ said.
“More important, thousands of people in spite of everything are coming to Israel to express their solidarity and their friendship for the people of Israel,” Hedding told CNSNews.com.
Hedding said it’s particularly important for Christians to stand with Israel as it “confronts the growing threat of a nuclear Iran.”
Addressing the pilgrims at Jerusalem’s main convention center on Tuesday evening, Hedding said he has news for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: “Before he wipes Israel off the map, he will have to remove God from His throne.”
There is no nuclear bomb that can wipe Israel off the face of the earth, he said. Israel is not a “political coincidence” or “accident of history” but a fulfillment of God’s prophecies in the Bible, Hedding said.
The West believes that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program to secretly develop an atomic bomb. Ahmadinejad repeatedly has said that Israel should be wiped off the map.
The Iranian leaders (and others) have charged that Israel, which was established in 1948 following a United Nations resolution partitioning British Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, is the result of a Western colonial effort.
The crowd of Christian Zionists believe that the Bible promises the Land of Israel (including Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip) as an eternal inheritance to the Jewish people.
Earlier this decade, during the worst years of the Palestinian uprising, when suicide bombers were regularly blowing up buses and restaurants in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, they kept coming by the thousands to the ICEJ Feast to show their solidarity with Israel.
The ICEJ was started in 1980 by a group of international Christians as an act of solidarity with Israel. During that summer the Israeli Knesset passed a law establishing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Arab States threatened an oil embargo and many nations pulled their embassies out of Jerusalem. Some 1,400 Christians from 40 nations gathered in protest and decided to open their own “embassy” in support of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham Balila welcomed the pilgrims on Tuesday evening on behalf of the government to what she called “the City of God, the eternal capital of Israel forever and ever.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has indicated that he would divide the city of Jerusalem, which the Palestinians also claim as their capital. But Abvraham Balila pledged that would never happen.
“Let us all pray that this city will remain united forever. I promise you that Jerusalem will be controlled by the Jewish people forever. And I promise you that Jerusalem will be open to all people of all faiths, for all times to come,” she said.
The ICEJ’s gala celebration opened on Monday evening with a huge meal and program for some 6,400 pilgrims in the desert by the Dead Sea. Singers and dancers in bright costumes performed a variety of traditional Jewish as well as Christian songs. A troupe of 20 Chinese performers who had participated in the opening of the Summer Olympics in Beijing also played the opening drum and musical numbers there.
There are about 1,000 pilgrims at the Feast this year from North America, said ICEJ spokesman David Parsons. The largest contingent – about 1,800 -- is from Brazil.
For many pilgrims, their trip to Jerusalem and Israel is a life-changing experience.
George Jackson and his wife Betty, who founded the World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, have been traveling to Israel since 1969. They have brought some 20 tour groups from their church since 1999, he said.
“We bring Christians to Israel [because] it makes the factual information [in the Bible] come alive,” Jackson told CNSNews.com.
When Christians see the geographical location of Israel in relation to the nations around it and see how the Jewish people “by God’s decision have impacted the world for 4,000 years,” it gives current events meaning, Jackson said. It also helps them to make “wise choices” in their own personal lives, he said.
Albert and Susan Jefferson from Richmond, Virginia, are on their first trip to Israel. They said they weren’t deterred by bad news on television. “This is a trip of a lifetime,” Albert said.
Deber Ruth from Brazil also is visiting Israel for the first time. “Since I’m a Christian, it’s always good to know where Christ walked and where his ministry started,” said Ruth.
“We read in the Bible about not only the history but about [the disciples] of Jesus Christ, and coming here is feeling what they felt and maybe a way to [an] encounter with the truth. It’s very, very touching,” she said.