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For some evangelicals, Mideast war stirs hope

ALEXANDRA ALTER / Miami Herald | August 8 2006

Believing the Mideast conflict is a sign that Christ will return soon, some evangelical groups have cheered Israel's military actions.

The Rapture Index -- a popular evangelical Christian Web posting that calculates a global rise in natural disasters, war and inflation -- bills itself as ``a Dow Jones industrial average of end-time activity.''

An index below 85 signifies a week of ''slow prophetic activity.'' Anything above 145 signals the apocalypse is near.

The Rapture Index this week: 158. The spike reflects many U.S. evangelicals' view that growing conflict in the Middle East signals the start of a global struggle leading to Christ's return.

''We believe 100 percent what the Scripture has to say about this,'' said Jack Heintz, a South Florida businessman and president of the Christian group Peace for Israel, who recruited 23 evangelical Christians to join a July telephone fundraising event for Israel. ``There's going to be a total battle, the battle of Armageddon, and I believe that's very close to happening.''

Some have ratcheted up support for Israel in its current battle in Lebanon with Hezbollah out of belief that a raging war -- perhaps even a nuclear confrontation -- marks a prelude to the apocalypse. Christian groups are sending millions of dollars to Israeli communities and shelters, hosting pro-Israel rallies and urging U.S. politicians to back Israeli military action.

Evangelicals have issued dire warnings about a conflagration in the Middle East for decades, said Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who studies evangelicals and politics. Many evangelicals regard such calls with skepticism, he said.

''Every time there's been a war in the Middle East, this comes up,'' Wilcox said. ``Most evangelicals would not interpret this as saying that Christ is coming back in the next couple of years.''

RAISED INTEREST

Since the current crisis erupted July 12, interest in the Rapture Index has mushroomed, said Todd Strandberg, a Christian from Nebraska who updates the index on his website, raptureready.com. The site had a quarter-million unique visitors in July, up from 180,000 the previous month, Strandberg said.

''The Scripture bears witness to these events being part of the end-times prophecy,'' said Gary Cristofaro, pastor of First Assembly of God in Melbourne. ``Israel is so important in God's eyes.''

Cristofaro's church is one of a handful of Florida congregations that tithes a monthly donation to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a practice that stems from a belief that Israel must control the Palestinian territories in order to fulfill biblical prophecy. The congregation has donated more than $100,000 to support Israeli settlements in the past decade, Cristofaro said. On Saturday, church members plan to hold a ''Bless Israel'' fundraising event for 2,000 people.

Evangelicals' financial support for Israel has increasingly been supplemented by political action, Christian and Jewish leaders say.

At a July 18-19 pro-Israel rally in Washington, Christians from Florida and other states lobbied politicians to back Israel's military campaign in Lebanon. The Rev. John Hagee, pastor of a mega-church in San Antonio and founder of Christians United for Israel, organized the convention in hopes of launching a pro-Israel political network in 50 states.

Hagee has issued dire predictions about instability in the region leading to apocalypse. In his 2006 book Jerusalem Countdown: A Warning to the World, Hagee warns: ``The coming nuclear showdown with Iran is a certainty. The war of Ezekiel 38-39 could begin before this book gets published.''

Other high-profile Christian leaders have espoused similar views. In a July 22 commentary, the Rev. Jerry Falwell predicted present-day conflict in the Middle East will ''serve as a prelude or forerunner to the future Battle of Armageddon and the glorious return of Jesus Christ.'' Pat Robertson has shied away from declaring Armageddon but has warned ''God himself'' will fight for Israel.

WARY OF SOME EFFORTS

While a number of Jewish leaders have courted evangelicals' support for the Jewish homeland, others are troubled by its theological underpinnings, said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious advisor at the America Jewish Committee in New York. Jewish leaders have long been wary of evangelicals' effort to convert Jews to Christianity through messianic groups such as Jews for Jesus and the Chosen People Ministries.

''Is the motivation to stand up for Israel, or convert the Jewish people and bring on the end of days?'' said Rabbi Solomon Schiff, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami.

Other Jewish leaders say evangelicals have toned down the religious aspects of their pro-Israel mission in recent years, particularly their insistence that Jews convert.

Avi Mizrachi, executive director of the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, said he was overwhelmed by fervor for Israel at the Washington rally for Christians United for Israel.

''I saw more Israeli flags there than on Israeli independence day,'' he said. `In the past, there was concern about them trying to convert us. It doesn't even come up anymore.''

Christian Zionism -- the belief that Israel will set the stage for prophetic events such as the rise of the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon and Christ's 1,000-year reign -- has steadily gained popularity since the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and '80s, said Timothy Weber, author of On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend.

In the most gruesome scenario, evangelicals envision a global battle breaking out when a 200-million-man army invades from the east and Jesus returns to take on the Antichrist. Jews and other non-Christians will face conversion or death.

In the past, some Christians predicted the armies would come from Russia or China, and today, many foresee an Islamic army led by Iran, Weber said.

Hagee and others caution that while Christians may have stepped up preparations for the end times, most believe the fate of the world remains in God's hands.

''No Christian or groups of Christians can do anything to hasten the return of Jesus Christ,'' Hagee said.

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