SHILOH, West Bank (Reuters) - With a skullcap bearing the Star of David and a fervent belief that God gave the Holy Land to the Jews, Paul McCaleb could be mistaken for a Jewish settler.
The 73-year-old from Tennessee is actually a born-again Christian, part of a growing group of devout Protestants, many from the United States, who are supporting Israel with their votes and their wallets.
“Coming here just does something inside of me,” McCaleb said at Shiloh, a holy Jewish site in the occupied West Bank where the Bible says the Ark of the Covenant once rested. “This land belongs to God, and God gave it to the Jews.”
McCaleb and some 7,000 mostly evangelical Christians from across the world flocked to the Holy Land this week to celebrate the Jewish festival of Sukkoth and to show support for Israel.
During the event, busloads of pilgrims travelled in bullet-proof buses to Jewish sites in the West Bank -- which some Jews call Judea and Samaria -- and to Jewish settlements, which are deemed illegal under international law.
Some pilgrims toured army bases and donated gifts to Israeli soldiers while others gave money to buy mobile bomb shelters for communities near the border with the Gaza Strip, which are often targeted by rockets from Palestinian militants in the enclave.
Shouting “Amen” and “Hallelujah” as settlers acting as tour guides vowed to hold onto “the land of their forefathers” in the West Bank, the pilgrims said it was their duty as Christians to support Israel against a broader Muslim threat.
“We are here to support the Jewish people and to bless them,” said Scott Fritz from California. “The idea of giving land back to the Palestinians is completely wrong.”
A group called the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem organises the annual festival, which culminates with a march through the holy city on Tuesday.
This year some Orthodox rabbis urged Jews to stay away from the marching pilgrims for fear the Christians -- many of whom believe Jesus is the only hope for salvation -- would try to “exterminate” the Jewish people by converting them.
The ICEJ concedes it “cannot offer hope outside of Jesus”, but argues Christians and Jews share the same spiritual roots and says it wants to help erase the legacy of anti-Semitism.
“There is no dark agenda,” David Parsons, ICEJ media director said. “Christians are realising that God still loves the Jews and their return to Israel is of great biblical significance.”
Some Christians, particularly evangelical Protestants, believe the return of Jews to Israel paves the way for Christ’s return and the end of the world, and represents the fulfilment of God’s promises to biblical patriarchs.
Christian Zionists form a growing part of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, the Jewish state’s main ally.
Groups such as the Chicago and Jerusalem-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews raise millions of dollars each year to support projects in Israel and to lobby Washington.
During the trip to Shiloh, representatives of the Jewish settler movement urged pilgrims -- some of whom wore “Praise the Lord” baseball caps -- to lobby governments against peace talks that may lead to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
“Governments come and go but anyone who tries to give away God’s land will fall,” settler Yehudit Tayar told one of the buses, prompting cheers from the pilgrims.
Not all Christians back Israel. The Vatican’s envoy in the Holy Land and bishops from three other churches last year accused the Christian Zionist movement of promoting “racial exclusivity and perpetual war”.
While pilgrims in Israel this week were keen to visit Jewish towns and settlements, few appeared to venture into Palestinian towns, or meet many Arabs during their stay.
“We dare not go into the Palestinian areas and anyway they are not open to us,” said Elizabeth Lee, a Pentecostal Christian from Malaysia who has been to Israel 40 times.
Many pilgrims saw the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians as an extension of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “War on terror”, and talked about a clash between good and evil.
Mark Burns is an ardent Israel supporter who runs Christian radio stations in Illinois and brings groups every year to the Holy Land to donate blood and money.
“Christians who read the Hebrew scriptures know God made a promise with Israel,” he said. “People who are clueless about the Old Testament can be persuaded to support the other side.”
But as the bus rumbled past an Israeli checkpoint and through the West Bank barrier that Israel says it needs to stop suicide bombers, Australian Denise Vince was not so sure.
“I don’t know much about politics but I do get the sense I‘m only hearing one side of the story.”