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Tourism To Israel Is On The Rise, With More U.S. Evangelical Christians Visiting


President Trump got into some trouble with Jews in the U.S. this week. He said that those who vote for Democrats, as most Jews do, are disloyal to Israel. He has less reason to complain about evangelical Christians, who increasingly see Israel as a place of inspiration. One indication of that interest - a big growth in the number of evangelicals who visit Israel, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: American Jews have long felt a kinship with Israel. And when travel agent Eyal Even started promoting trips there 30 years ago, they were his main market. That's no longer the case.

EYAL EVEN: Today I would say the average is mostly Christian. There are Jews going to Israel (laughter), but there's a lot more Christians going to Israel, I think.

GJELTEN: Even, himself a native Israeli, now has separate itineraries for evangelical and Catholic groups. Tourism to Israel is growing by about 10% a year, according to the Israeli tourism ministry. A tourism official says most of the U.S. tourists are Christians, and a growing share of them are evangelicals. Some are drawn to Israel because they see the reestablishment of a Jewish state as a precondition for the second coming of Jesus. Others just want to visit places they've read about in the Bible.

ANDY COOK: The locations of all those stories are always right where they're supposed to be.

GJELTEN: Pastor Andy Cook leads evangelical tours of Israel twice a year.

COOK: These people, when they come home, they want to read more of that Bible. They've seen the locations. And they see the stories of the Bible as what they are - their history.

GJELTEN: The highlight of Robert Bowman's trip to Israel in 2017 was seeing the dungeons in Jerusalem where Jesus awaited his crucifixion.

ROBERT BOWMAN: We saw the rooms where he was flogged. I was in tears. All of us were in tears thinking about what the Lord Jesus went through and seeing the actual place.

GJELTEN: In 2018, Sharon Litton went to Israel with an evangelical group. For her, the memorable moment was a rebaptism by immersion in the River Jordan, where Jesus himself is said to have been baptized.

SHARON LITTON: I had to go. And that was just so dear to me, to be baptized in the same water that Jesus was.

GJELTEN: It's not just the New Testament stories that come alive for these Christian visitors; tour leaders say evangelicals are especially eager to see places mentioned in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible. The itineraries customized for evangelicals include a larger share of those sites. Daniel Hummel, whose new book "Covenant Brothers" describes the evolution of Christian Zionism, says Israeli authorities are eager to accommodate this evangelical interest in ancient Israel, knowing it supports their territorial claims.

DANIEL HUMMEL: A lot of these tours are very highly controlled to convey a particular sense of Israel, to emphasize the Jewishness of the land, that this is the homeland of the Jewish people.

GJELTEN: The Christian tourists have minimal contact with Palestinians, not even with Palestinian Christians, many of whom are of Eastern Orthodox background. The Israeli tourism official tells NPR the government works with pro-Palestinian church groups, as well as those more in line with the Israeli side. But it's clear it's the evangelical tours that serve Israeli interests.

COOK: I'd say close to 100% of our travelers come back extremely pro-Israel in their political views.

GJELTEN: Again, Pastor Andy Cook, who's been 22 times.

COOK: I tend not to trumpet the political part of the trip. That's not our purpose. But it's invariable that people are going to come away feeling something.

GJELTEN: And the Israelis have an interest in promoting that feeling, says author Daniel Hummel. He's at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

HUMMEL: There is definitely an understanding on the Israeli government side that tourism is a key way to connect with American evangelicals. And a lot of the pro-Israel groups in the United States see tourism as one of the key ways in shaping evangelical attitudes about Israel.

GJELTEN: President Trump may want U.S. Jews to be more supportive of the Israeli government, but maybe that's becoming less important. Christians United for Israel, an evangelical group, now claims to have 7 million members. That's about the size of the entire U.S. Jewish population.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News.


Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.