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Conservative Christians are lending support — and cash — to Israel at war

Evangelicals from Brazil wade, pray and get baptized in the Jordan river in Israel.
Maya Levin for NPR
Evangelicals from Brazil wade, pray and get baptized in the Jordan river in Israel.

TEL AVIV, Israel — David Ndayishimiye, a 21-year-old evangelical Christian, says he's long felt a calling to support Israel.

After the attacks of Oct. 7 in Israel, he felt that call more urgently. That day Hamas killed more than 1,200 people and took 240 people hostage, according to the Israeli government.

The University of Missouri, Columbia public affairs and policy graduate student wondered how best he could do this living in Missouri.

"I was really looking into a way to support Israel, because ever since I was young, since my teenage years, I had an urge to stand with Israel, because I'm a Christian," he tells NPR.

Ndayishimiye's support for Israel is connected to his family and faith's interpretation of biblical teachings about the Holy Land.

David and his group that traveled with the Philos Project volunteered at a farm called the Kibbutz Moran in Galilee in April.
Josefa Gonzalez / David Ndayishimiye
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David Ndayishimiye
David and his group that traveled with the Philos Project volunteered at a farm called the Kibbutz Moran in Galilee in April.

In April, Ndayishimiye fulfilled that yearning to show support for Israel directly when he visited that country, he says. He spoke with NPR before his trip and expressed his excitement at the chance to go, to learn more about the country and to better understand the current situation in Israel during wartime.

Before his trip he felt the need to show up for Israel as public support for the country is faltering in the U.S. after a months-long conflict in Gaza, and as pro-Palestinian protests are blocking roads, roiling college campuses and U.S. politics.

"I think that if we stand with Israel we'll be on the right side of history. That's my belief," he said.

With antisemitism on the rise, and Israel facing criticism from some U.S. lawmakers, students, human rights groups and other countries for its actions in Gaza, where, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed, other Christians and Christian organizations say they are feeling the call to support Israel now more than ever by donating, visiting in person and volunteering.

Conservative Christians, and evangelicals especially, have been staunch supporters of Israel for decades, citing a religious connection to the Jewish people and the land. This support stems from the belief by some denominations that the end times prophecy will take place in Israel, and that Israel is the rightful land for Jews, according to their interpretation of the Bible.

Ndayishimiye joined a nine-day trip to Israel organized by the Philos Project, a nonprofit based in the U.S., which says it "seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Near East." Representatives for Philos, as well as other Christian groups supporting Israel, including Christian Friends of Israeli Communities and HaYovel, say their work has taken on a renewed importance since the attacks of Oct. 7.

In the immediate days after Oct.7, Christianity Today reportedthat millions of dollars in donations were sent to organizations and ministries in Israel to respond to emergency needs.

The Associated Press reported in Marchthat the major Christian pro-Israel group in the U.S., Christians United for Israel, raised and sent more than $3 million to Israeli first responders, healthcare workers and Oct. 7 attack survivors. CUFI declined to speak to NPR for this article.

But it's not all about money.

It has become a tremendous boost in morale when people are spending money to come to Israel, to listen and to lend a hand to a nation still trying to heal from trauma, Faydra Shapiro, the executive director of the Israel Center for Jewish Christian Relations, says. The group is dedicated to "building better relations between Christians and Jews, in Israel and around the world" through trips and educational programs.

"It's been extraordinary. And it's been important for us to remember that it's not us and them, it's not us and the world," Shapiro says.

Christians from San Paolo, Brazil get blessed in the Jordan river in Israel on May 11, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Christians from San Paolo, Brazil get blessed in the Jordan river in Israel on May 11, 2024.

Christians' early ties with Israel

Ndayishimiye says from his understanding of the Bible, he believes "Israel is a very special place. And it has a very special place in the heart of God."

The war has not scared off other devoted Christians who feel the same way as Ndayishimiye. There are still groups arriving to Israel for visits to Biblical sites like the Sea of Galilee, where pilgrims from all over the world come to be baptized every year.

Two weeks ago, a group of about 100 visitors from Brazil arrived to be baptized and shared similar sentiments to Ndayishimiye and his support for Israel.

Evangelicals from Brazil wade, pray and get baptized in the Jordan river in Israel on May 11, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Evangelicals from Brazil wade, pray and get baptized in the Jordan river in Israel on May 11, 2024.

Cleo Ribeiro Rossafa, 54, spoke to NPR as members of her group immersed themselves into the very water believed to be where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. It was Rossafa's 18th time in Israel, she said.

It's what many evangelicals believe is part of the "Abrahamic Covenant." This is the idea that God promised land that is now Israel and the Palestinian territories to Abraham and his descendants.

Research indicates that 51% of American evangelicals believe similarly that Jews are God's chosen people. Evangelicals are also the most likely group of Christians to make donations to Israel a priority, according to a 2021 survey from Grey Matter Research and Infinity Concepts.

Christian support for Israel emerged in earnest during the '60s and '70s, Daniel Hummel, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and expert on U.S.-Israel relations and American evangelicalism, says. He is also the director for The Lumen Center, in Madison, Wis., which focuses on the study of Christianity and culture.

The Six-Day War (also called the 1967 Arab–Israeli War), which was fought between Israel and an alliance of Arab states including Jordan, Egypt, and Syria "brings us to the forefront of American evangelicalism," Hummel says.

This moment "is really significant" as for many Christians, particularly Pentecostals and fundamentalists, it appears to fulfill their belief that explained a prophecy of the end times, Hummel says.

He says the Six-Day War seems to fulfill particular biblical prophecies that some Christians understand the Bible says, which includes Jews kicking out Gentiles (non-Jews) from Jerusalem before the end times as more than 200,000 Palestinians were displaced. That sets off a lot of speculation within this facet of Christianity about whether the end is near "and Israel is sort of part of that story," Hummel says.

By the time the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, there are a lot of evangelicals in Israel that subsequently helped Israel respond to the war effort. That included manning food kitchens, driving ambulances and praying for Israel's success. This service work continued during subsequent Arab-Israeli conflicts that continued well into the '80s, '90s and early 2000s, Hummel says.

And where there were a few small organizations in the '60s and '70s, there are now dozens of organizations, based internationally or in Israel; most often, fundraising for Israeli needs and relying heavily on conservative, American evangelical funding, Hummel says.

This support also bleeds into the political for evangelical Christians in the U.S. that skew heavily Republican. They are among the biggest supporters of Israel in this war.

This conflict feels different for Israel support even among evangelical circles, Hummel says.

There's something unique about Oct. 7 in that the conflict is becoming part of the U.S. culture wars, is playing out online and drawing a level of polarizationthat just didn't come up in the '80s and '90s, he says.

On the contrary, Shapiro of the Israel Center for Jewish Christian Relations says post-Oct. 7, 2023 she has seen "a change in emphasis" in this support from Christian Zionists.

"What I am seeing is that this is even less and less political, it is less and less about Zionism or about particular policies, and I'm seeing more and more of a kind of feeling that Oct. 7 was like a watershed civilizational moment," she says.

She says she finds that many Christians are asking themselves: "What if it were us? What is right for us as Christians? Here is a chance for us to show that we've learned something from history."

Not all Christian organizations have come out in support of Israel's war

There are also a number of Christian organizations that are taking a different approach to Israel's war in Gaza and are, instead, speaking out against the war and the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza.

Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon leads one of those groups. She is the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, a broad coalition of American Christian denominations and organizations that has actively been calling for the end of Israel's military actions in Gaza.

She says the interpretation some Christians have of the scriptures and the Old Testament has resulted, in her opinion, in a false binary.

Cannon says she knows a number of Christians calling for the support for Israel's war efforts.

"Some are unilaterally supportive of Israel's military right to defend itself," she says. That has translated to people making solidarity trips or volunteering to join the Israeli military.

Capitol Police arrest demonstrators with Christians for a Free Palestine for protesting inside a U.S. Senate cafeteria for a ceasefire and aid for Gaza, Washington, D.C., on April 9.
Allison Bailey / Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
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Middle East Images/AFP via Getty
Capitol Police arrest demonstrators with Christians for a Free Palestine for protesting inside a U.S. Senate cafeteria for a ceasefire and aid for Gaza, Washington, D.C., on April 9.

But the core belief within CMEP is "common principles of peacebuilding, nonviolence, demilitarization," Cannon says. "We're not pro Israeli or pro Palestinian, but we're advocates for human rights."

Dozens of activists from another groupthat opposes the war, Christians for a Free Palestine, were arrested in Washington, D.C. in April. Other groups, including Mennonite Action have organized regular protests against the war on Capitol Hill.

More than 140 Bishops and leaders from national and international churches and church-based organizations representing Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, Quakers, and Evangelicals signed a letter from CMEP published in Marchcalling for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

The letter called on the U.S. and other powers to cease arms sales to Israel and for Israel, the U.S. and other countries to abide by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Christian support brings millions in money and volunteers to Israel after Oct. 7

Valentina Miroshnochenko from Sochi immerses herself in the Jordan river in Israel on May 11, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Valentina Miroshnochenko from Sochi immerses herself in the Jordan river in Israel on May 11, 2024.

Sondra Oster Baras, the founder and international president of Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, says her group has seen a jump in fundraising. Her organization focuses specifically on the communities in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which CFOIC calls "the heart of Biblical Israel."

"People are in touch with us all the time [asking], 'How can we help?' They want to hear the latest. They are donating money for the security needs in Judea and Samaria, which is our focus right now," she says.

Oster Baras and her group refer to the West Bank as Judea and Samaria, a Biblical name for this region, and believe that this region is not occupied territory — a position at odds with much of the international community. Israeli nationalists who believe the West Bank should be part of Israel also use the term "Judea and Samaria" to describe this particular region.

Oster Baras lives in Karnei Shomron, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Oster Baras, who is Jewish, says she fell into building up CFOIC Heartland, an organization that says it "enables Christians to connect with the Jewish communities (settlements)" in the West Bank. She started the group almost 30 years ago to focus on building Christian relationships and support for Israel. Most of CFOIC's tour participants are evangelical Christians who come from all around the world including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, she says.

"We're reaching out to anybody. But really, we're looking for friends," Oster Baras says. "All we're looking for is people who love Israel."

As of March, CFOIC started seeing an increase in people reaching out and arriving for solidarity missions, she says.

"We are in the middle of a war. It's certainly not a time when people looking for sun and a bit of archaeology and a bit of culture are coming to visit Israel," she says. "These are people who are raising money and giving money to help Israel in any way possible."

CFOIC fundraising money goes toward "beefing up civilian security measures," which includes surveillance cameras or communications equipment in what CFOIC calls "the third front" of the war, Oster Baras says.

Israeli settlers in the West Bank are an increasingly controversial and tense issue. There are reports of settlers increasing their attacks on Palestinian villages, burning homes, killing animals and ripping up plants and olive trees and expanding their outposts. Much of the international community condemns the settlers and their outposts as a violation of international law.

Remnants of the violent attack on the Palestinian village Duma by Israeli settlers on April 13th.15 homes were damaged by arson and six residents injured by bullets, according to the head of the village council on April 18, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Remnants of the violent attack on the Palestinian village Duma by Israeli settlers on April 13th.15 homes were damaged by arson and six residents injured by bullets, according to the head of the village council on April 18, 2024.
Ibrahim Fatthi, 34 surveys the damage outside his home after the violent attack on the Palestinian village Duma by Israeli settlers on April 13th.15 homes were damaged by arson and six residents injured by bullets, according to the head of the village council. April 18, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Ibrahim Fatthi, 34 surveys the damage outside his home after the violent attack on the Palestinian village Duma by Israeli settlers on April 13th.15 homes were damaged by arson and six residents injured by bullets, according to the head of the village council. April 18, 2024.

"I have to be extremely clear on this: We are not in any way involved in anything military. We are purely involved in things that are seen as defensive, protective measures for a community in a civilian capacity," she says.

The community has faced an increase in threats since Oct. 7, she says.

"It has become critical. And our Christian audience really understands that and has stepped up to the plate," she says.

The Christian Zionist organization, HaYovel, is similarly raising money for the protection of West Bank settlements. The group launched Operation Ittai when the war broke out, raising almost $3.7 million of its $29 million goal as of May 8 to go toward defense equipment in the other Jewish settlement communities in the West Bank.

"It really becomes a moral duty to stand with the Jewish people. We see Israel really fighting alone now. The international community is giving Israel a really hard time and that's hard for us to see," Joshua Waller, the director of operations for HaYovel says.

Members of the Evangelical group HaYovel take care of trees they planted earlier in the year outside if the Israeli settlement of Gitit on April 18, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Members of the Evangelical group HaYovel take care of trees they planted earlier in the year outside if the Israeli settlement of Gitit on April 18, 2024.
(L-R) Katie Hutsler, Zandri , Tessa Waller and Payton, members of Evangelical group HaYovel take care of trees they planted earlier in the year outside if the Israeli settlement of Gitit on April 18, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
(L-R) Katie Hutsler, Zandri , Tessa Waller and Payton, members of Evangelical group HaYovel take care of trees they planted earlier in the year outside if the Israeli settlement of Gitit on April 18, 2024.

Waller and his family, originally from Tennessee, have dedicated their life to their organization's efforts in Israel. Waller's father founded the group 20 years ago. He lives now full-time in Israel.

HaYovel usually brings hundreds of volunteers, many from the U.S., annually to work on Jewish farms on settlements in the occupied West Bank. The group frequently brings visitors to plant trees in the area. Since the war started, "the only thing that changed for us was that it just became much more of a need," Waller says.

After Oct. 7, thousands of foreign workers left Israel after more than 50 citizens of Thailand who worked on the country's farms were killed or taken hostage.

Palestinian workers are also still banned from returning to work in Israel. But there remains a pressing need for farm hands to pick fruit and vegetables and milk cows.

In the absence of these workers, volunteers from around the world have been filling the needs of Israel's agricultural industry.

CFOIC received a group of visitors' in April, which included some Christians from the U.S., Scotland and Australia. The members of the group had been to Israel before but came this time "to bring support and comfort and to understand better," Oster Baras says.

They also volunteered on farms in the Jordan Valley, she says.

Frequently, visits from Christians to Israel in this time, like Ndayishimiye's own trip, have included making stops at communities attacked on Oct. 7, including the Nova rave site and kibbutzim ravaged by Hamas militants near the Gaza border, and hearing stories directly from survivors.

"That was a very, very important encounter for people from abroad," Oster Baras says. "To meet [them] in person and hear their story. It was just amazing."

Their trip involved a visit to communities in the Gaza envelope, which includes the southern areas of Israel within a few miles of the Gaza Strip border, and to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz attacked on Oct. 7.

This face-to-face effort is so important, Oster Baras says.

"We say this to every group. Before they leave, we say 'you are now our ambassadors,' " she says. "There's so much misinformation, there's so much distortion, so many lies that are being put out all over the world about Israel, and with the increased influence of social media, this is even worse. And this is how we combat it."

Members of the Evangelical group Hayovel take care of trees they planted earlier in the year outside if the Israeli settlement of Gitit on April 18, 2024.
/ Maya Levin for NPR
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Maya Levin for NPR
Members of the Evangelical group Hayovel take care of trees they planted earlier in the year outside if the Israeli settlement of Gitit on April 18, 2024.

Cannon, with CMEP, believes some of those trips are "trauma tours" that can tread a fine line with voyeurism.

"People are going [on the tours] to empathize with Jewish grief and suffering, but there's a criticism that there's a certain co-opting of trauma. That's deeply disconcerting. Because we want to come alongside of Jewish families who are suffering. But solidarity and empathy is different than voyeurism," she said.

After his recent visit, Ndayishimiye says he feels more confident in his position on the war and in his belief that he must stand with Israel. In his interpretation of the Bible, the Word of God mandates the support of Israel.

His trip has supported his positions, he says. "I'm very confident now in my ability to speak up for Israel."

Maya Levin contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: May 28, 2024 at 1:41 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of photographer Josefa Gonzalez.
Jaclyn Diaz is a reporter on Newshub.