Sunday, July 22, 2007

In D.C., Christian Zionists Push Get-Tough Policy on Iran

Floyd reports from San Antonio's Cornerstone Church and checks out a nearby Masonic Temple:

San Antonio Express-News | July 22, 2007
Abe Levy

WASHINGTON — Inside a reserved Senate room, several hundred evangelical activists who came by plane and bus Wednesday waited for the arrival of Texas' two senators.

As their leader, Pastor John Hagee, entered the room, they erupted in cheers, snapping photos of the face of modern Christian Zionism, a movement that promotes Israel as a biblical mandate.

The room turned silent as Hagee greeted Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn near the stage. Hagee looked the senators in the eye and said: "These people are from Texas — and they are voters."

That message came through loud and clear last week as Hagee and 4,500 like-minded Christians visited the Capitol to lobby for Israel and a get-tough policy against Iran. Motivating them is their belief that Israel's fate is tied to that of the free world.

"We didn't come to Washington to figure out what Washington thinks," Hagee said. "We came to Washington to express our views, and we came as people. People hold the power in America."

Pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio and a world-reknowned TV evangelist, Hagee organized the lobbying blitz (the second in two years) to try to exert political power in Middle East policy, including consideration of a pre-emptive strike on Iran.

He founded a non-profit organization, Christians United for Israel, 18 months ago, to give a louder voice to Christian Zionists, who are among the 60 million to 100 million evangelicals in the U.S. Many of them believe they are living in the final days described in prophetic books of the Bible and that standing with Israel assures them of being on God's side when it is all said and done.

Known for his fiery apocalyptic sermons and books, such as "Jerusalem Countdown," Hagee, 67, is no stranger to conservative Republican politics and mobilizing Christians to vote.

Last week, along with the visit to Congress, CUFI conducted a three-day summit for 4,500 delegates that included seminars on the evils of militant Islamic groups, lessons on effective lobbying, the showing of pro-Israel documentaries, banquets for donors and its signature event, Night to Honor Israel, which was broadcast on Israeli TV.

The ceremony drew nearly 5,000 participants inside the Washington Convention Center and 15 protesters outside.

The dissenters, part of "Project Straight Gate," based in Phoenix, held signs that read "Hagee's apostacy kills Palestinians" and "Blessed are the peacemakers." The group, representing six states, started five years ago to counter the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

To them, Hagee is the next Rev. Jerry Falwell, who they say misrepresented Christian faith through his political activities.

"The whole Christian Zionism movement is causing Christianity to be a laughing stock all over the world," said Charles Carlson, the group's founder and director. "It's bringing (Hagee) fame and fortune by putting Israel on the throne right beside Christ."

Inside the convention center, high-profile Israeli and U.S. government leaders revved up the audience with impassioned speeches by, among others, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay also attended.

At a banquet for $1,000-plus donors the night before, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and practicing Jew, praised CUFI and likened Hagee to Moses as a "leader of a multitude."

"The support of Christian Zionists is critical to Israel's security and strength," he said, "and to America's security and strength."

The average delegate found in the seminars the material they would need for lobbying and later grassroots activism. Panelists, both Jewish and Christian, promoted the use of alternative fuels as a way to wean America from Arab oil and deeper study of pro-Israel arguments to clarify biased media reports, win converts in their neighborhoods and vote pro-Israel candidates into office. There was particular emphasis on one core belief that Israel must not give up any land to Palestinians for peace, a view that comes from the Bible and history.

They also detailed the threat of militant Islamic groups who incite children to hate Jews and teach that being suicide bombers would give them the glory of martyrdom.

"It is a sick philosophy that goes by many names, but I haven't found a better name for this than islamofascism," Gary Bauer, a former presidential candidate who served in the Reagan administration and current CUFI board member, said during a workshop.

Pressing their points

Armed with talking points, CUFI delegates brought their message to a Congress largely in agreement, given that Israel was created by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

They reported meeting with 279 lawmakers, including 57 senators, and according to CUFI leaders, were generally well received.

Still, the suggestion of threatening Iran with a pre-emptive strike before exhausting diplomacy and the dismissal of a two-state solution in the Holy Land were not met with support from all lawmakers.

Some were skeptical that an American public growing weary of the U.S. presence in Iraq could stomach an attack on Iran. They would rather try to persuade other powerful nations in Europe and Asia to end trade with Iran and enact other economic and diplomatic sanctions.

"I've found that diplomacy sure does a lot of good," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who didn't meet with CUFI members but was asked about them while en route to the Senate chambers. "Ronald Reagan proved that in the Cold War. He sent emissaries to the Soviet Union. We can never take the military option off the table as a world power, but we need to exhaust all diplomatic ways first."

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., made time to meet briefly with 85 CUFI members who waited for him on the Capitol steps. State directors Mike and Jean Ann McNally stuck to four talking points as instructed during CUFI workshops: opposition to a two-state solution, support for sanctions on Iran, a U.N. crackdown on the terrorist group Hezbollah and continuing and increasing the $2.4 billion in yearly U.S. aid to Israel.

"One of their great strengths is their succinct message," Corker said after the visit, noting he took a first-ever trip to Israel during his election campaign last year. "The clarity of that message has endeared them to many people."

Several CUFI members lingered after the visit, holding hands in a circle and whispering prayers.

"We know we'll get blessed because we're blessing Israel," said Jean Ann McNally, the co-state director for Tennessee. "We're not here to lose."

In contrast, fundamental disagreements emerged during his meeting with seven CUFI members, said Bill Harper, chief of staff for Congresswoman Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul.

McCollum earlier this year was invited to attend a Night to Honor Israel in her home state. She declined in an April 25 letter, citing "repugnant" publicized statements by Hagee, including his calling Hurricane Katrina God's judgment on a sinful city and saying those who live by the Koran have a mandate to kill Christians and Jews.

After the meeting, Harper said he couldn't agree with CUFI's assertion that a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians would hurt progress in the Middle East.

He pointed to Israel's freeing of 250 Palestinian prisoners Friday and Bush's release of a multimillion-dollar aid package for the Palestinian Authority Cabinet.

"This is really frankly a radical leadership," Harper said of CUFI. "They are dangerous to any prospects of ending the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians."

Texas' two Republican senators were more welcoming of CUFI's message.

"I think this is a group that gets it from the standpoint of the threat to not only our nation but also to the Iraqis and Afghans and to Israel," said Cornyn. "And that is the threat of Islamic extremism that justifies the murder of innocent civilians in pursuit of its ideological agenda."

Hutchison described CUFI as the Christian equivalent to the Jewish lobbying group AIPAC, and credible.

But she parts company with it over, for example, her preference for a two-state solution to bring "long-standing peace and economic development."

Challenges ahead

Hagee's meeting with Texas lawmakers was one of the few public appearances he made during the week. Instead, during 12-hour, tightly scheduled days, he was immersed in private CUFI strategy meetings with pastors and lawmakers.

CUFI claims about 50,000 members from churches representing 2 million people and has directors in each state and representatives in 10 countries.

Even with Congress' strong pro-Israel leanings, Hagee and CUFI have to gain traction at a time when one presidency is nearing an end and the next is a big unknown.

As CUFI met in Washington last week, President Bush, who banked on the same evangelical base as CUFI's, announced plans to pursue a two-state solution for the Holy Land.

Also last week, the State Department appeared headed to diplomatic talks with Iran to discuss charges that it is arming Iraqi militias. Such a move runs contrary to one of CUFI's strongest convictions — that Iran's pursuit of nuclear capabilities by its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is part of a ploy to wipe out Israel and establish an Islamic world order.

Hagee also has to convince an increasingly fragmented evangelical community that Israel should be its top agenda item, despite competing issues such as global warming, poverty, abortion and homosexuality.

Perhaps one of Hagee's biggest hurdles will be his status as a controversial end-time theologian who, with great certainty, purports to understand future events based on his reading of the Book of Revelation and Old Testament prophecies.

Israel, he says, will come under attack from Arab enemies led by the Antichrist, pitting the forces of good and evil in the Battle of Armageddon. The Jews in Israel will be killed, except for 144,000 who are spared and foretold to convert to the Christian faith before Jesus' return.

Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, Jewish leaders with CUFI have said the only difference between them and their Christian counterparts is whether the Messiah's future arrival will be his first or second time on Earth.

This end-time theology was intentionally left out of the CUFI trip last week and in all other related events, Hagee said.

"We come here and make it very clear that end-time theology has absolutely nothing to do with our support for Israel," he said. "We're supporting Israel because Israel is threatened like no other time in all of her history."

But for others, his end-time views cause them to question his motives, especially since he's outspoken about his desire to affect U.S. foreign policy.

"As a Christian, I continue to be concerned about this militant crusader projected into the world that's categorically the opposite of the message of Jesus as I understand it," said Don Wagner, a founder of the Institute for the Study of Christian Zionism.

This issue deeply divides Jews, some of whom, while they praise Hagee's work to eradicate anti-Semitism, see him as using them as pawns to fulfill Christian prophecy, including the annihilation of most Jews.

David Brog, CUFI's executive director and a practicing Jew, said Christian Zionists are not motivated by end-time prophecy, despite their belief in it. Instead, Brog said, Jews who partner with CUFI are recognizing their shared dedication to moral lifestyles, the same sacred texts and the same God and a common goal of peace by combating the modern threat of global terrorism.

"If (Hagee) wanted a war, then he'd want to let Iran get the bombs," he said. "I think (Hagee's critics) are misunderstanding Christian theology. God has no set time for the Second Coming. And there's nothing you or I can do about it."

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