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Israeli rabbinic authorities have abruptly called on Jews to shun a major Christian tourism event, baffling and upsetting evangelical groups that traditionally have been big supporters of the Jewish state.
More than 6,000 Christians from more than 90 nations are expected to arrive in Jerusalem this week to take part in the 28th annual Christian celebration of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Succot, or Feast of Tabernacles, according to the event's organizers, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
Thousands of Christians take part in the celebration annually, as do Israeli lawmakers, government representatives and ordinary Israelis. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, a former chief rabbi, personally welcomed participants one year.
But this year the chief rabbinate urged Jews to stay away from the event, saying some of the groups want to convert them to Christianity. Proselytizing is illegal in Israel.
"According to information that has reached the chief rabbinate, there are participants in this conference who convert Jews to Christianity and perform missionary activity throughout the year," said Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook, the chief rabbi of Rehovot, who took part in committee discussions of the matter. "This is against the law, so the chief rabbinate is calling upon Jews not to take part in the conference."
Israel has laws against missionary work, and for many here, proselytizing is dangerously close to the forced conversions European Jews endured for centuries.
The group's organizers said they were upset by the rabbis' call.
"It is disappointing to learn that some rabbinic authorities are trying to discourage the Jewish public from participating in this traditional march," said the Rev. Malcolm Hedding, the ICEJ's executive director.
"The ICEJ has never conducted any missionary programs in Israel and we clearly instruct our Feast pilgrims against such activity during their stay here."
Benny Elon, a religious lawmaker who heads parliament's Christian Allies Caucus, questioned why the rabbinate's ruling was handed down now, after the event took place for 27 years with the understanding on both sides that missionary activity was off limits.
At a time when Israel is under threat of attack from Iran and other sources of radical Islam, it should not alienate Christians who "are the most important ally against this danger," said Elon, adding that he's received telephone calls from dozens of Christian friends of Israel disturbed by the ruling.
"We have to be wary of missionary activity," he said. "But after we know it and they [the Christians] know it and it's on the table, it is embarrassing to suddenly have a campaign against Christians. I don't know who is spearheading this. I hope the chief rabbis will explain this."
The ICEJ estimated the Succot event would infuse as much as $18 million into the local economy. That point wasn't lost on event organizers, who said the evangelical event - which they described as a "huge boost" to Israel's tourism industry - would take place despite the rabbinate's call.
According to the Old Testament Book of Zechariah, all nations will make pilgrimages to Jerusalem in the messianic era to celebrate Succot. Christians have interpreted this to mean that Succot is a holiday where Jews welcome non-Jews to join them in celebration in Jerusalem.
There has been a growing alliance in recent years between right-wing Israeli groups and some evangelical Christians who believe Jews must return to the biblical Land of Israel to facilitate a Second Coming of Christ.
The Israeli government has forged close ties with conservative American Christians in recent years, and evangelical groups have contributed millions of dollars to Israel. These Christian groups also oppose territorial concessions to the Palestinians who want to establish a state in areas Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
The ICEJ says its supporters do not accept teachings accepted by some other Christian groups that masses of Jews will die in the final climactic battle between God and Satan if they do not accept Jesus.