Christian evangelicals from the US flock to Holy Land in Israeli tourism boom

    Record-breaking numbers of tourists paid for visits to Israel in 2017, and a growing proportion come from Donald Trump’s evangelical voter base

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    The lights go down at a large restaurant on the edge of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel and there’s a hush among diners before the music swells again.

    The American national anthem blasts out from a sound system and most of those present stand up to sing. Fireworks light up the dark water.

    “Welcome, dear friends of Israel,” a woman tells the Christian tourist groups. “You are most welcome here – more welcome here than anyone else.”

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    Religious tourism is nothing new in the Holy Land. Evangelicals and Christian Zionists began flocking to Israel in the 1970s and the numbers of foreign Christian visitors have outnumbered Jewish ones for more than a decade.

    At the moment, with security worries since the last Gaza war eased, the industry is booming. A record breaking 3.6 million people visited Israel in 2017, up 25 per cent from 2016 and the first time the number of visitors has ever exceeded the three million mark, according to tourism minister Yariv Levin.

    Of those tourists, almost 800,000 were American, and a growing proportion of those are evangelical Christians. The year before last, the most recent for which figures are available, put the figure at 13 per cent.

    Christian Zionism is a 20th century movement that believes the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 is in accordance with Biblical prophecy – the Jews must return to their homeland before the second coming of Jesus, armageddon and the rapture can be realised.

    As a result, there is trenchant support for the Jewish state among evangelical Christians – almost 80 per cent of whom voted for US president Donald Trump in 2016.

    “Christian Zionists tend to be full throttle when it comes to Israel. They support settlements [in the West Bank], moving the American embassy, the idea of a greater Israel, all things which are damaging to Israel’s future as a progressive and viable state,” said Yossi Mekelberg, a professor of international relations at Regent’s University London.

     “They are often completely oblivious to the Palestinian side of the story. It’s not something that concerns them. It’s about religion,” he added.

    “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”

    Many a presidential candidate before Mr Trump has promised to move the US’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the disputed city of Jerusalem in a bid for votes, but refrained on entering office for fear of upsetting the already fragile Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

    Many on the Israeli right as well as Mr Trump’s voter base were ecstatic with the decision to move the embassy – but the symbolic illustration of close US-Israeli ties could serve to drive tourist numbers back down.

    Jerusalem hoteliers and tour guide organisations are worried about stabbings, vehicle rammings and other attacks when the existing consulate building is re-inaugurated on 15 May, which for Israelis marks the country’s 70th birthday, and for Palestinians, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba – or “disaster”.

    The consistent low level threat of terrorism has never deterred the religiously motivated from pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.

    “Israel has a schizophrenic personality when it comes to tourism. On one hand it’s a country where conflict is going on, but on the other, in terms of issues such as street crime, the levels are much lower than in Western Europe,” said Jonathan Rynhold, director of the Argov Institute for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

    “Most of the time visitors don’t feel or notice it – unless you take a wrong turn and end up in Ramallah in the West Bank. The West Bank security fence makes it much harder to do that now.”

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    Violence and instability is never far from Israel’s borders, however.

    On Mount Bental, an Israeli military outpost in the Golan Heights turned tourism destination, several coach loads of American tourists wander around the site, gazing towards Mount Hermon and Lebanon beyond it and Syria in the valley below.

    The Syrian rebel-held village of old Quneitra, bombed and battle scarred, lies in the near distance. Artillery shots float up as fighters exchange fire with government-held new Quneitra a few kilometers away.

    An American couple holding hands strolls past, both listening intently to audio guidebooks. After a particularly loud boom, the woman turns to her partner, taking out her headphones. “Did you say something, dear?”

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