It is a major annual tourist event in a country already awash in tourists: 5,000 evangelical Christians have come to Jerusalem, as they do each fall, to praise the Lord, walk in His footsteps and--not least--proclaim their love for Israel and Zionism.
Arms raised and fingers fluttering, they packed Jerusalem's largest auditorium this morning, swaying and singing and smiling up a storm, then paraded through the streets in such numbers that Israeli radio stations warned afternoon commuters to flee the city center.
"In Jerusalem, we feel very much like we've come home," said Kenny Blacksmith, 43, of Quebec, a member of the Cree Nation who wore long black braids bound in rawhide and held an eagle feather in his fingers. "It's a thrill for us to be here."
Said Bi Bang Yan, a retired Chinese math professor from Beijing who borrowed money from friends to pay the $1,100 air fare: "From the Bible I know this is the Holy Land, and all the [Jews] who live here are the Chosen People. The size of the Promised Land is quite small, but its enemies have the mouths of tigers."
The Zionist Christian pilgrims, many of them Americans, believe the birth of the state of Israel in 1948 and its subsequent battlefield triumphs are the fulfillment of scriptural prophesy and a precursor of the coming of the Messiah. Their fervent support of the Jewish state, and of its control of the West Bank and Jerusalem, has prompted every Israeli prime minister since 1980 to make his own pilgrimage to address the group at its annual observance of the Feast of Tabernacles, which Israelis call Sukkot.
But this year, Ehud Barak has stood the group up so far, generating a political flap and a bit of a mystery.
"He's under a lot of stress," said Johann Luckhoff, the South African-born executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, an organization with no official diplomatic status that has organized the annual gathering for two decades.
But Luckhoff said he could not rule out a political explanation. The Christian Embassy has been skeptical about peacemaking, particularly about Israeli territorial compromises in the West Bank, land it regards as promised by God to the Jewish people. In that light, Christian Embassy officials have looked askance at Palestinian claims to land--the basis of Barak's peace talks with the Palestinians--and speak pointedly of the threat posed by Israel's Arab enemies.
The prime minister, Luckhoff said, "could think we have too much of a right-wing image and that this is too sensitive a stage in the peace process."
Not so, said Barak's beleaguered aides. They pleaded that a packed schedule was to blame, adding that it is possible Barak may still try to squeeze in an appearance before the event's finale at week's end.
"They are supporters of Israel, and I don't see any reason why not to see them," said David Ziso, a spokesman for Barak.
Nonetheless, Barak's rivals were quick to make political hay of his failure to appear.
"Now I want to be very sincere with you, as I always am because I love you so much," Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert of the right-wing Likud party told the Christian assembly Monday night. "I know that you, some of you, even though you do not like to say these things because you are so polite and so friendly, were somewhat offended by the fact that the prime minister of Israel was too busy this week to find the proper time to welcome you."
Delegates to the Tabernacles Feast came from dozens of countries: from India to Indonesia, from Brazil to Brunei. In the corridors of Jerusalem's convention center, Finnish delegates decked out in the blue and white stripes and Star of David of the Israeli flag mingled with Frieslanders from northern Holland in wooden clogs. A large Indonesian delegation showed up, as did an Armenian dance troupe.
According to conference organizers, a number of Kalahari bushmen from Botswana tried to make it to Jerusalem on foot but were stalled by visa problems in Egypt.
Delegates from North America and Western Europe pay a registration fee of $280 a person, more than those from poorer countries and enough for the feast to break roughly even, according to Timothy King, financial director of the Christian Embassy.
Big and varied as the convention is, it is expected to be significantly larger for the millennium gathering next year. Although Israeli tourism officials have recently downgraded their estimate of visitors expected in 2000 to 3.1 million from 4 million, the numbers are still expected to strain the country's hotel and transportation network. Organizers of the Feast of Tabernacles gathering, which typically draws about 5,000 visitors to Jerusalem, say they expect 8,000 to 10,000 next year.
The Christian Embassy has taken pains to distance itself and its Tabernacles Feast from what it calls the fringe groups and oddballs who may arrive in the Holy Land at the millennium with apocalyptic scenarios. Such groups have unnerved Israeli officials, who set up a special police task force to monitor them after one cult, calling itself the Concerned Christians and based in Denver, was expelled early this year.
The mainstream denominations represented by the Christian Embassy--Pentecostals, Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians and others--are interested only in celebrating in the place where Jesus once lived and in supporting Israel, organizers said.
CAPTION: Thousands of evangelical Christians have come from all over the world to attend the annual Feast of Tabernacles, which Israelis call Sukkot. Many say they feel "very much like we've come home."
CAPTION: Delegates to the annual observance of the Tabernacles Feast in Jerusalem, many in their native costumes, come from dozens of countries: from India to Indonesia, from Brazil to Brunei. Among them is a native American pilgrim expressing feelings toward Israel by carrying a Star of David.