MarchingWe must rise to action in the defense of Israel! We must vote, demonstrate and lift our voices in the press!” American preacher Dr. Robert Stearns urged 5,000 Christian pilgrims from 80 different countries filling the seats of Jerusalem’s new Pais Arena on Tuesday evening for a spectacular show celebrating their declaredly unshakable bond with Israel.

They were at the arena for “Israeli Night,” an event of The Feast of Tabernacles to which Israeli citizens and residents, including 300 Jewish, Christian and Druze IDF paratroopers who served in Operation Protective Edge, were invited as special guests.

ICEJ raises millions of dollars to assist with the aliyah to Israel of Jews from around the world, most recently from India and Ukraine. During this summer’s conflict with Hamas, the organization provided portable bomb shelters and other assistance to Israeli communities on the Gaza border. ICEJ also runs a full-care residence for 70 Holocaust survivors in Haifa.

Tuesday’s spirited, colorful, music-filled extravaganza capped off a week of visits to holy sites and study and prayer sessions for the pilgrims. They also participated in a march through Jerusalem and heard addresses by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, as well as by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via video link.

Feast of Tabernacle pilgrims march through the streets of Jerusalem. October 14, 2014. (Courtesy ICEJ)

According to ICEJ’s website, the Feast of Tabernacles is meant to celebrate the “recognition of the hand of God in Israel’s modern day restoration and the need to work with what God is doing, and bless it.” This year’s feast was the largest in seven years, despite Israel’s conflict with Gaza, which ended less than two months ago.

“It’s an encouraging statement of solidarity,” ICEJ media director David Parsons told The Times of Israel.

“We needed to move it from Jerusalem’s International Conference Center to the Pais Arena because we needed more space. [Jerusalem Mayor Nir] Barkat urged us to make the move, and we were the first international gathering in the new arena,” he said.

Judy Russell, the personal assistant to Reverend the Hon. Fred Nile, the leader of Australia’s Christian Democratic Party, came with a group of 22 pilgrims touring Israel for two and a half weeks.

‘We’re here because of our love of the God of Israel as he brings his people home’

“We’re here because of our love of the God of Israel as he brings his people home,” she said before the singing and shouts of Hallelujah reached a deafening pitch.

“It is our mission to bless Israel. In Australia, people are being manipulated by the Palestinian message. It is the job of people like us to educate others about Israel’s side,” Russell said.

Roy Sims of Sydney, a member of Russell’s group who has made visits to Israel since the 1970s, agreed that Israel is misunderstood.

He said this summer’s fighting with Hamas in Gaza worried him, but it did not cause him to be concerned about his personal safety or deter him from coming.

“It’s one thing to be in the lion’s den. It’s another to put oneself in the lion’s mouth, which is not what we are doing,” he said.

The evening’s program featured rousing musical performances by a variety of Christian performers, as well as by a number of Israeli musicians, including composer Kobi Oshrat, who had the 5,000-strong crowd signing along to his 1979 Eurovision-winning song, “Hallelujah.”

Audience members give standing ovation to IDF paratroopers as they march in to "Israeli Night" at the Feast of Tabernacles. October 14, 2014. (Courtesy ICEJ)

The pilgrims were obviously moved by a tribute to the IDF soldiers, who were called to the stage with their commanding officers and Greek Orthodox clergyman Father Gabriel Naddaf, who has encouraged Christian Arab youth to enlist in the IDF.

“Christians around the world are behind you, praying for you 24 hours a day,” ICEJ public relations director Doron Schneider told the soldiers.

In his keynote sermon later in the program, Stearns, leader of the Eagles’ Wings ministry based in upstate New York, called the young IDF soldiers “the watchmen on the walls of Zion, on the frontline of the battle for all humanity.”

Stearns’ words brought the crowd to their feet, shouting “Halleluyah!” and blowing shofars.

“There has been a division between Jews and Christians for 2,000 years. Horrible things were done to Jews in the name of Christianity, but that was never the spirit of the true followers of Jesus,” he said.

‘Israel does not answer to America. Israel answers to the promises of Hashem’

“Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew, and we follow the Jewish Jesus. We received the Bible and the Prophets from the Jewish people.”

Stearns sent a clear political message, expressing his displeasure with the policies of the current administration in Washington.

“Israel does not answer to America. Israel answers to the promises of Hashem,” he said using a traditional Jewish name for God.

“Don’t look to Obama. Don’t look to the UN. Don’t look to the EU. Lift your eyes to the God of Israel. He is your rock, your salvation, you defender. He is your Iron Dome!” he told the audience, presumably focused on the Israelis.

The preacher also directed remarks to the American president, accusing him of having his priorities wrong in the Middle East.

“Obama, stop worrying where Israelis are building apartments in their capital of Jerusalem, and start worrying about stopping ISIS from murdering Jews and Christians,” he said.

Dr. Robert Stearns of Eagels' Wings (left) gives the keynote sermon at Feast of Tabernacles "Israeli Night" on October 14, 2014. (Courtesy ICEJ)

In conjunction with the Feast, a press conference was held on Monday afternoon calling for an end to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. The event was hosted jointly by ICEJ, the Israel Allies Foundation and the World Jewish Congress.

Later on Monday, Lauder thanked the thousands of Christians assembled in the Pais Arena for standing with Israel through a difficult year, and pledged Jewish support in combating what he termed a Christian “genocide” in the Middle East and Africa.

“Thank you for standing here, in Jerusalem, the undivided capital of the Jewish state of Israel. Israel has no better friends in the world than you. We know that you have watched out for us, and we will always watch out for you. The fact is, there is no safer place in the Middle East for Christians than here in Israel,” he said.

Shmulik Fried, director of the Friends of Israel department of Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, seconded the importance of nurturing and strengthening the Jewish-Christian alliance.

‘No one supports Israel like the Christians’

“The Christians are trying to change direction and are trying to show shared values and that they want the best for Israel, including aliyah of Jews to Israel,” he said as he waited for Tuesday’s spectacular to begin.

“No one supports Israel like the Christians,” he said.

Twenty-three-year-old Olav Andre traveled from his home in Ulsteinvik, Norway, to personally demonstrate his support.

He said he was glad to have made this first trip to Israel, so that he could see the country for himself.

“In the media, Israel is the big devil, but it is really the opposite. I want to speak the truth about what is really happening here and around the Middle East,” he said.

Renee Ghert-Zand