Controversial US Christian Zionist organisation to open UK branch

ReutersIsrael's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out a two-state solution before his re-election.

A US-based pro-Israel group is to launch in the UK next month.

Christians United for Israel (CUI) bills itself as "an association through which churches and individuals can show support for Israel".

Publicity for the UK launch says: "The new organisation aims to ignite Christian support for Israel, believing that Great Britain will be blessed by blessing Israel and aspiring to act as a Christian voice in support of the Jewish people."

It also highlights the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK and Europe – anti-Semitic attacks reached a 30-year high in 2014, according to the Community Security Trust, and there were also attacks in Paris and Copenhagen. Des Starritt, executive director of Christians United for Israel UK, says: "The Church has opportunity to express God's love to the Jewish people, and we must not remain silent at a time when hostility towards them is increasing. Jews are a valued part of British society and Christians can effectively express this by actively building good relationships with the Jewish community."

But behind this laudable aim lies a controversial figure. CUI was founded by John Hagee, pastor of the 20,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. He has a world-wide TV ministry and is highly influential in evangelical circles. However, he is also known for provocative statements and questionable positions. He said in 2007 that he did not believe in global warming and that the Kyoto climate change protocol was a conspiracy aimed at undermining the United States' economy. He has also predicted (in his 2005 book A Warning to the World that Israel will be invaded by Russia and Islamic states and that God will destroy them.

Hagee has also been accused of anti-Catholicism (though he later renounced these views) and being anti-Islam. He recently made headlines with a prediction that 'four blood moons' – lunar eclipses on Jewish feast days over the last two years – were a sign that "something dramatic [will] happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world".

Christian Zionism is a keystone of his ministry. After the controversial speech to Congress by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hagee preached a sermon in which he said: "If we do not stand up for Israel, if we do not embrace Israel in her hour of tragedy, God will bring judgment to us.

"God's message to America this past Tuesday in Congress was loud and clear: Stand with Israel because the day you reject Israel is the day that I will reject you."

Before Netanyahu's visit, he said: "I am a student of world history, and you can wrap up world history in 25 words or less and here it is: the nations that blessed Israel prospered and the nations that cursed Israel were destroyed by the hand of God."

His belief in Israel has led him to visit frequently – he has met every prime minister since Menachem Begin – and to pour millions of dollars into Jewish orphanages, hospitals, ambulances and other worthy causes. He has also backed Israel's military actions against Palestinians, whom he denies have any right to what he regards as Israeli terrority; in the early days of Operation Protective Edge, which devastated Gaza, he led a protest in Washington against the Obama government, saying: "We've come to Washington to ask our government to stop demanding for Israel to show restraint."

In spite of his pro-Israel stance, Hagee has also been accused of anti-Semitism. In his book Jerusalem Countdown, he wrote that Hitler had been sent by God to "hunt" the Jews into founding the State of Israel. He has also used language appearing to deny that Jesus was the Messiah, though he later clarified his intentions.

Not everyone has welcome the establishment of a UK branch of Hagee's CUI. Jeremy Moodey, chief executive of Embrace the Middle East, told Christian Today its arrival was "troubling".

"Its militant, aggressive and right-wing brand of dispensationalist Christian Zionism is popular in large parts of the US Bible belt, especially where support for the State of Israel is tied up with 'End Times' doctrines such as the so-called Rapture and Tribulation," he said.

"But this kind of apocalyptic theology holds little currency in Britain, where we are less inclined to fall prey to the conceit of seeing Old Testament prophecy fulfilled solely though recent history in the Middle East. There are already a number of British organisations committed to supporting Israel, including Christian Friends of Israel, so why do we need another one, in this case even more extreme?"

He concluded: "His entire fundamentalist and dispensationalist theology is viewed through the distorted prism of his unstinting support for the State of Israel. One must really question what CUI and Hagee will bring to the debate about Israel in the UK."

Moodey's distinction between the Christian Zionism in the US and its equivalent in the UK carries conviction. While there is an established evangelical lobby for Israel, it is less strident in tone and is not nearly as powerful as it is in the US. Organisations like Christian Friends of Israel, the Church's Ministry Among Jewish People and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem UK are among several seeking to mobilise UK Christians to support Israel.

However, the well-publicised plight of the Palestinians and the widespread perception that Israel is fundamentally opposed to the two-state solution backed by the rest of the world mean that sympathy is much more limited. In most of the evangelical community, dispensationalist theology of the kind which teaches that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is a fulfilment of biblical prophecy is far less prevalent, and Zionism itself is not mainstream in anything like the way it is in the US.

Whether Hagee's brand gains traction in the UK is yet to be seen. Like Moodey, however, many will question whether the politics of Christian Zionism is the best way to bring peace to a troubled land.

Lifestyle