When thousands of Christians showed up in Jerusalem this week for the annual Christian celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, it was an encouraging sign that not only is tourism on the rebound after this summer’s conflict in Gaza, but also that Israel truly has committed Christian friends around the globe. The Succot gathering hosted by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem drew more than 5,000 Christians from over 80 nations, the best turnout in seven years – which is quite remarkable given that rockets were still falling all around Israel just a few short weeks ago.
There was a wonderful excitement as these Christians interacted with Israelis this week.
At the grassroots level, our throngs of pilgrims were warmly welcomed by locals in the traditional Jerusalem March, and that evening we hosted nearly 2,000 Israeli guests, including 300 IDF soldiers, at the brand-new Jerusalem Payis Arena for a gala Succot celebration.
On more formal levels, the modern-day saga of strong Israeli-Christian relations hit a milestone moment when President Reuven Rivlin, representing the people of Israel, and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder, representing the Jewish people abroad, addressed our Feast event, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a videotaped greeting. The vast audience from the nations included 30 cabinet ministers and parliamentarians from 20 countries – all Christian supporters of Israel.
“Thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your dedication. Thank you for your consistent trust and support,” President Rivlin told the visitors. “We appreciate you, lovers of Israel and Jerusalem, for taking part in the joy of this holiday.”
In his remarks, Lauder stressed that Jewish- Christian friendship is becoming something of a necessity in the light of the common threat we face from radical Islamist regimes and terrorist militias – a peril that is especially acute at present for Middle East Christians.
“I am now convinced more than ever that we must join forces,” he insisted. “A Jewish-Christian coalition makes complete sense. Together, Christians and Jews must speak as one and tell the world: No more discrimination, no more terror, no more death and no more silence!” Lauder also warned of growing anti-Semitism in the world, saying, “The same people who go after us are also going after you.
That is why Christians and Jews must join forces and act together.
“Thank you, my Christian brothers and sisters, for standing with Israel through this very difficult year,” he added. “Israel has no better friends in the world than you. We know that you have watched out for us, and we will always watch out for you.”
While enjoying a joyous festival in Jerusalem, the Feast pilgrims were keenly aware that not far away an unspeakable evil has been stalking many of our Christian brothers and sisters in the region. The rampage of Islamic State across Iraq and Syria has wrought inhuman carnage over recent months that is testing the moral fiber of world leaders.
Amid the heated debate over whether Western air strikes are enough or will “boots on the ground” be necessary to stop this menace, the ICEJ leadership joined with World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder and Dr. Billy Wilson of the Empowered21 global Evangelical movement this week in demanding that world leaders urgently act to halt the persecution of Middle East Christians.
It has been interesting to watch the debate over Western military action against Islamic State. The Obama administration in particular justified the launch of an air campaign in Iraq in order to save members of the Yazidi minority trapped on a barren mountain in northern Iraq – and rightly so. Other nations have joined the expanding coalition, based on the added concern that this brand of unbridled terrorism could soon reach their shores. Perhaps a distant third, if mentioned at all, was the need to defend the ancient and vulnerable Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.
Such lack of genuine concern for Christian victims of Islamic persecution is nothing new. When Arab Muslim militiamen in Sudan began slaughtering thousands of black African Muslims in Darfur, politicians, rock stars and Hollywood icons all jumped on the Darfur bandwagon – and rightly so.
Yet where were all these voices of virtue when the Khartoum regime was carrying out the much longer and bloodier genocide and ethnic-cleansing campaign against Christians in southern Sudan!? Over a 30-year period, the Islamists in power in Khartoum massacred more than two million Sudanese Christians and displaced over four million more. The response was largely silence. Manute Bol’s long, lonely protest vigil on Embassy Row in Washington just could not compete with the star power of George Clooney.
Back at this week’s Feast gathering in Jerusalem, there were several blunt reminders of the plight facing Middle East Christians.
One Feast volunteer, a doctor who has undertaken several recent medical relief missions to Syria, was forced to eyewitness the beheading of Christian men, women and children. Canon Andrew White, the Anglican “Vicar of Baghdad,” moved the audience deeply with his first-hand accounts of Christian churches and villages being destroyed.
And to top it off, the Feast hosted the 45 soldiers of the Fiji Battalion serving as UN observers on the Golan who were held hostage by the Nusra Front rebel militia in Syria last month. Their ordeal ended miraculously well compared to other hostages of jihadist groups these days, but what if their captors had known these were Christians who love Israel.
So Lauder is right – a Jewish-Christian coalition is truly needed by both parties.
And the synergy witnessed between our communities this Succot here in Jerusalem shows that it is alive and gaining strength.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.