JERUSALEM — American televangelist John Hagee led several hundred flag-waving followers across Jerusalem on Monday, a colorful display of the growing alliance between Christian evangelicals and Israel.
Hagee, who calls himself a Christian Zionist, pledged his unconditional backing for the Jewish state. He also vehemently denied he is anti-Catholic, telling reporters that comments attributed to him were either false or mischaracterized.
Presidential candidate John McCain recently distanced himself from a Hagee endorsement because of what Catholics alleged were disparaging remarks by the pastor, including suggestions that Catholic anti-Semitism shaped Adolf Hitler.
Some dovish Israelis are equally uncomfortable with Hagee and other evangelists because of their support for West Bank Jewish settlements and criticism of peace efforts with the Palestinians.
Hagee, who heads a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, established “Christians United for Israel” two years ago. About 1,000 followers are on a 10-day visit to Israel to show their support and pledge funds to Israeli causes.
Police blocked traffic on Jerusalem’s busiest street as followers waved flags from all 50 U.S. states and chanted “we love you, Israel,” “Israel is not alone” and “God bless Israel.”
“You can see that they really love us from all their heart,” said Becky Davidov, 57, who works in a jewelry store. “We could use some more friends like these.”
“It’s all very nice,” said David Yom-Tov, another shopkeeper, “until Jesus comes back again.”
Indeed, many Israelis and Jews are troubled by what they suspect is the source of the unbridled support _ a belief by some evangelical groups in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil in which Jesus returns and Jews either accept Christianity or perish.
Israel’s government has so far chosen to enjoy the generous financial and political support of leaders like Hagee, and worry about the second coming later.
Hagee, on his 24th visit to Israel, has met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
Olmert spokesman Mark Regev said their meeting did not indicate Olmert agreed with all of Hagee’s positions.
“In all too many places in the world, there is hostility toward the Jewish state,” he said. “When people profess their support for Israel, obviously that is something we can appreciate.”
In this trip, Hagee’s group pledged $6 million in donations, and it plans a large march to Washington in July to call on the Bush administration not to pressure Israel into making any concessions to the Palestinians.
Hagee’s followers say their main inspiration is not the Armageddon, but rather, rectifying what they view as a historical Christian wrong _ silence during the Nazi Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed.
“Our motto is: ‘Never again, not on our watch,” said Iris Dixon, of Texas.
At a solidarity event on Sunday in Jerusalem, Hagee insisted that the contested city remain united and under Jewish control. Palestinians claim the eastern part of the city, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as the capital of their future state.
Hagee’s politics are a source of concern for some Israelis and Jews who support peace with the Palestinians.
“In my eyes, this man represents an approach that is very dangerous to the future of Israel,” said Yossi Beilin, a dovish lawmaker. “In my eyes there is nothing more ridiculous and tragic than to see in this man a friend to Israel.”
Last week, the president of the largest branch of American Judaism _ the liberal Union for Reform Judaism _ called Hagee an “extremist” on Israeli policy who disparages other faiths. Rabbi Eric Yoffie called on synagogues in the movement not to work with the evangelist.
In a conference call with reporters Monday, Hagee responded to Yoffie.
“He supports this very serious charge by repeating verbatim the Catholic League’s claim that I called the Catholic Church ‘a great whore,’ a ‘false cult system,’ and an ‘apostate church,'” Hagee said. If Yoffie had checked his facts, Hagee said, “he would have found that I have never called the Catholic Church by these names.”
Hagee said it was true that he grown “skeptical of territorial concessions” but said his fundamental philosophy was that “Israelis alone have the right to make the existential decisions about land and peace.”
© 2008 The Associated Press