July 8th, 2011
10:23 AM ET

Contested Israeli settlements welcome evangelical Christian tourists

By Kevin Flower, CNN

West Bank (CNN) - Boarding a bulletproof bus to travel through one of the Middle East's perennial hot spots may not be most people's idea of a fun vacation activity, but for a growing number of Christians visiting West Bank settlements, it’s becoming an obligatory part of their visit to the Holy Land.

So it was that Marie Louise Weissenbock and a handful of other Austrian tourists came to tour the Israeli settlement of Shilo, where the Bible says the sanctuary for the tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written – a place known as the Tabernacle - resided for nearly four centuries.

"It's a very significant place in the Bible,” she said. “And it’s important for us to see where the roots lie and to be here ourselves."

Shiloh is just one of dozens of important biblical locations scattered throughout the West Bank, but the Austrians’ visit was about more than just getting in touch with spiritual roots. It was also about expressing support for the Jewish settlement of land Israel occupied since the Jewish state’s 1967 war with Arab neighbors.

Shilo is home to over 2,000 Israeli settlers who began moving to the area just over three decades ago.

Weissenbock and her fellow travellers are members of Christians for Israel International , a group dedicated to spreading understanding of what it calls “God's purposes for Israel and to promote comfort of Israel through prayer and action.”

The group’s recent tour of Shilo is part of a growing effort by some of Israel's 300,000 West Bank settlers to explain to the outside world why they choose to live on land claimed by Palestinians and continue to build houses that the international community views as illegal.

Shilat Kahalani, a tour organizer, says that last year some 30,000 tourists came through Shilo. This year, she expects that number to increase to 40,000.

"Some groups come out of their own interest,” she said. “They know this is a Bible land and they know that there are deep roots here and they come here to see it with their own eyes. Some come here to understand the politics better."

Kahalani said the decision to open up settlements to tours was necessary to counter what she says is an inaccurate public perception of settlers.

"We know that if people just opened their eyes and saw, then they would see the truth,” she said. “What we see in the media and the picture that is drawn of us abroad is not true and we decided the only way to really take out the story is to open up and say, ‘Just come and look.’ "

As the bus slowly drove past the red-tiled roofs of Shilo's homes, Kahalani explained to the Austrians that most of the world misunderstands the settlers’ relations with Palestinians.

"They enjoy a higher standard of living thanks to the Jewish population that lives here,” she said, referring to the Palestinians.

It's a narrative rejected by the 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and who say that the scores of settlements like Shilo deny the viability of a future Palestinian state and constitute an Israeli land grab.

But for the pro-Israel Austrian tourists, the settlers’ message is resonating.

"I think that just in the European and American countries, they know too little about the real facts here," said Weissenbock.

"If you come here, you see how much space there is and you really ask the people and get a history of the place,” she said. “It’s really a different picture."

And while the organizers of the tours acknowledge that the majority of the visitors are Christian evangelicals, they argue they are doing more than preaching to the converted.

"I know it has changed many things and I know that people have changed their minds just walking around, without me saying anything," said Kahalani.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Christianity • Israel

soundoff (152 Responses)
  1. Accommodation Hanmer Springs

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    April 3, 2012 at 5:18 am |
  2. BauerAndrea

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    July 17, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
  3. T-Party

    Dalia ,As an agnostic who grew up in a jewish area I know the presecution you went through. evangelicals in America are the most hateful ,hell loving folks I have ever encounterd.

    July 12, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  4. John


    July 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • ....

      This is complete garbage don't waste your time, click the report abuse link to get rid of this thick head troll.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm |
  5. Muneef

    They told that the bringing into existence "Israel" has brought peace and unity among our fighting Arab tribal Muslims??

    Let me remind you of one thing that you might have not thought of before.
    You must have read about the wars and killings between Catholics and Protestants when there were only Two of them Christian branches but since then you became to have more than Two in branches and each claims to be on right path or true Church...this was noted from the words of fights i was able to read within several posts on these Religion blogs ...

    Guess if you go back reading your history in Europe or in the MidEast you will remember that your ancestors were because of such wars and conflicts driven out or migrated in force measure to overseas for finding the land they were told that they can practice their religious or non religious beliefs and rituals...
    Since then from different continents for many years made of the few branches many more branches in Black and in White...

    Could you tell me why the majority or the extremists did not try to enforce their Beliefs and Church upon all as did in the previous lands...
    Although can be seen that they might be working as "Missionaries" towards converting more at overseas countries ?  

    Tell me why you have this fragile unity and democracy among you there on that land ?

    Guess old Islam was the first to be a cause for your unity from the dates of the crusaders... Then in modern history there came the "Nazi's" then came the "Communists" but today you have the  "New Islam"....they were those who united you and got you to abolish slavery and made of you equal as it is today  in Black and White  !? 

    Guess always having a "Boogeyman" has been the only modern Secular way to serve controlling masses since with out Bible teachings here to get people follow,they have made this "Boogyman system" since this makes it a security alert measures taken ... 

    The existence of Islam and Muslims is behind your unity as Branches and Secular systems...while secular systems might be behind the fragile unity of Islam Branches and Bloodlines.

    In such cases if we were enemies we should at least have respect towards each other after all we still in need of each other in business,trades,consumer market Goods...
    God knows what else for centuries that we might have exchanged no matter who were the real pirates or bandits to the other all through ancient and modern history...

    But guess population masses every where are just used and abused to look like a "Large Dairy Farms" that are controlled and milked regularly for "Dr.Who's" of each nation.
    Some farms are more modern than others, while you will find in the Third World as some African or Asian tribes "cattle owners" live on the Animal Milk and Blood as vampires do while keeping the animal alive unhurt...

    July 11, 2011 at 7:57 pm |
  6. Pete

    I would think that the Evangelicals would love the Jews – after all, if they hadn't allegedly killed the mythical being, he wouldn't have died for their sins.

    July 11, 2011 at 7:19 pm |
    • petercha

      Evangelicals DO love the Jews. And please don't insult our religion by calling Jesus or the Bible "mythical".

      July 14, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  7. Mark

    While I can understand their historical interest in BIblical locations, I can't understand why these Evangelical tourists are supporting the Jewish state. Doesn't it state in the Bible that the Jews crucified Christ? Why would any Christian support not just a religion that repudiates Jesus, but the descendents of the people who actually killed him?

    July 11, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Lycidas

      Oy..no Christian should ever hold accountable anyone but themselves for the death of Jesus. After all, it was for everyone that Jesus died, so all are guilty.

      July 12, 2011 at 6:01 am |
    • Dalia

      I think that the reason evangelicals support Israel is because it has to be a peaceful nation inhabited by Jews as a requisite for Jesus' second coming. I doubt that they actually support the Jews; I have been told by a few that I am going to hell.

      July 12, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Daniel

      Romans killed Jesus....they weren't Jews. Who cares who killed Jesus? This article makes no mention of the fact that while some Jews may live alongside Palestinians just well, the Palestinians aren't allowed to MOVE ANYWHERE. How is this a happy coexistence?

      July 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm |
    • morris2196

      The Bible does not say that “the Jews crucified Christ”. Christ was tried in a Roman Empire court and executed by Roman soldiers. Although this was done at the urging of members of a Jewish ruling class, Jesus was actually popular among the common Jewish people in the area.

      July 14, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.