Evangelical Christians plead for Israel
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News, Washington
A week into one of the most severe crises the Middle East has seen in years, Israel is getting an influx of support from an unusual source.
More than 3,400 evangelical Christians have arrived in Washington to lobby lawmakers as part of the first annual summit of Christians United for Israel.
Delegates have come from all 50 states and have 280 meetings on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Pastor John Hagee said.
Pastor Hagee, the main organiser, said the event was the first of its kind.
"For the first time in the history of Christianity in America, Christians will go to the Hill to support Israel as Christians," he said.
The event was planned months ago, and is not a direct response to the ongoing violence in the region.
They see God's word being played out on their television sets
Timothy Shah, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
But the military conflict "certainly makes our meeting more significant," Pastor Hagee said.
The thousands of Christians in Washington - who came and are staying at their own expense - will be urging the US government "not to restrain Israel in any way in the pursuit of Hamas and Hezbollah", he said.
"We want our Congress to make sure that not one dime of American money goes to support Hamas and Hezbollah or the enemies of Israel."
Gift from God
John Hagee is the pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, and a long-time fervent supporter of Israel.
In common with many American evangelicals, he believes that God gave the land to the Jewish people and that Christians have a Biblical duty to support it and the Jews.
His latest book, Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, interprets the Bible to predict that Russian and Arab armies will invade Israel and be destroyed by God.
This will set up a confrontation over Israel between China and the West, led by the anti-Christ, who will be the head of the European Union, Pastor Hagee writes.
That final battle between East and West - at Armageddon, an actual place in Israel - will precipitate the second coming of Christ, he concludes.
It is not clear how many evangelicals believe literally in those type of prophecies.
Research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life last year found that evangelical Christians were more likely to support Israel than any other religious group in America besides Jews.
And there are far more evangelicals in America than Jews - estimates suggest that they represent about a quarter of the US population. (Jews make up about 2%.)
Two in three evangelicals believe that the establishment of the state of Israel fulfils Biblical prophecy, the survey found.
And what they see in the news only reinforces their faith, according to Timothy Shah, a scholar at the Pew Forum.
"When they see what's going on in the Middle East, a whole range of enemies arrayed against God's people, they see God's word being played out on their television sets," he said.
"They see Israel triumphing over its enemies as proof that God's promises remain."
Evangelical Christian support for Israel is "not a new phenomenon", Mr Shah said, pointing out that there were Christian Zionists lobbying for a homeland for the Jews in Ottoman Palestine in the 19th Century.
These groups have much more influence that Aipac or the so-called Israel lobby
Author of Kingdom Coming
What has changed is the movement's level of political involvement, said Nancy Roman, the director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Washington programme.
"Part of what is happening is that the evangelical community in the US is becoming more engaged in the political process," she said.
"Whereas the church used to counsel people not to engage in politics, many churches are now counselling the opposite.
"It's important and it will have a huge influence on foreign policy over time," she added.
Michelle Goldberg is deeply concerned about that influence.
She is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which argues that a significant strain of conservative Christianity is working to undermine fundamental American rights and freedoms.
She said the movement was just as dangerous in foreign policy.
"Christian Zionism is responsible for American support for some of the most irredentist Israeli positions," she said, such as support for settlement-building.
She said evangelical Christians had substantial influence on US Middle East policy - more so than some better-known names such as Aipac, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
"The influence of Hagee is to make the American public support the government's completely one-sided, hawkishly pro-Israel stance. These groups have much more influence than Aipac or the so-called Israel lobby."
Pastor Hagee himself said his group potentially had more clout than Jewish pro-Israel groups.
"When a congressman sees someone from Aipac coming through the door, he knows he represents six million people. We represent 40 million people."
One of those people is Rosa Highwater of Biloxi, Mississippi, who heard about the Washington summit through a local pastor.
She had no money to attend, she said, but added: "You have to believe and trust in the Lord when he tells you he's going to do something."
And in the end, friends paid for her journey to Washington and put her up in nearby Virginia.
She said she was not sure which congressman she would be meeting on Wednesday, but she knew her mission was important.
"Israel is God's first love," she said. "The Lord told me to come and be an intercessor. I said, 'I got to go. I got to do this.'"