Thousands of Christian pilgrims arrive to fulfill ancient Succot prophesy


The voices of thousands of Christian pilgrims worshiping "Yehoshua Christ" echoed for miles over the hills of the Judean Desert late Friday night - the first night of Succot. Just as the silence of Shabbat was settling over Jerusalem, the pilgrims - representing dozens of nations - came down to the shores of the Dead Sea in a long caravan of buses, wearing Judaic emblems like tzitzit, kippahs, and Stars of David on their clothing and jewelry. One Christian woman from Brazil, who said she was visiting Israel for the first time, was dressed from head to toe in an outfit tailored from Israeli flags. Sharp blasts from shofars, brought along by enthusiastic worshipers, often punctuated the evening's activities. Around 4,000 gathered on the moonlit beach of Ein Gedi to worship "the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" and to fulfill an ancient Hebrew prophesy penned more than 2,500 years ago by the prophet Zecharia, which they say predicts that people from every nation will someday join hands with Jews to celebrate Succot. "The nations... shall come up from year to year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Tabernacles" the Web site of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, which hosted the celebration, quotes from the Bible. "Say tonight, I am a part of the fulfillment of the prophesy," a worship leader urged the cheering crowd, who sang Hebrew classics like Shalom Aleichem and Hine Ma Tov. "You will bring blessings upon your nations." Many of the pilgrims also said they understood their presence in the Holy Land for Succot was part of the grand epic of history described in the Bible by the Jewish prophets. "We are here to be a part of history," said Tove Tveita, a Norwegian Christian participant. "We have the same history as the Jews. We believe in the same God, and we believe in a Jewish Messiah. "The Prophet Zecharia said all of the nations would gather for Succot, and now we are here to enjoy him in his land. What's happening tonight was written." The Succot feast held in Ein Gedi was the inaugural event for a week of celebrations being hosted by the ICEJ, with nearly 7,000 Christians in attendance. The Ministry of Tourism said this "Feast of the Tabernacle" is the largest annual tourist event that occurs in Israel and that the boost to the local economy is expected to be between $16 and $18 million. "Christian tourism to Israel, in all its streams, represents one of our most important targets," said Tourism Minister Stash Misezhnikov in a press statement regarding the celebration. Officials from the ICEJ said that part of their purpose in Israel is to help support the country financially. "We want to come and help economically support Israel," said ICEJ spokesman David Parsons. "We realized that it's important. This festival brings a huge injection of money into the local economy and it happens even in years of economic downtown." But not everyone is pleased with the annual influx of evangelical Christians during Succot, and some Jewish leaders say they are suspicious of the ICEJ's intentions. Rabbi Tovia Singer, the director of Outreach Judaism - an organization that works to combat missionary activities aimed at Jews - said that while he appreciates the boost to the local economy, most of the Christians who are in town for the festival want nothing more than to win conversions. "They have not come to pray for Jews but to prey on Jews," said Singer. "On one hand it's a very good thing to have them here, but the problem is that there is a price to pay because these evangelical Christians also come from denominations deeply involved in Jewish evangelism. Parsons has stressed, however, that the Christians are not here to win over converts and that his organization firmly discourages pilgrims from disseminating Christian literature while touring the country.