While many Christian bodies of various denominations have urged prayers for Ukraine and Russia during tensions, protests and violence over the past several months, a Christian Zionist group instead seeks to use the crisis to further its theologically driven political goals.
In doing so, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) uses rhetoric that adds to potential destabilization of Ukraine and undermines efforts by various Christians in the region.
Believing that Jews must return to Israel before Jesus returns, the ICEJ focuses much of its work on helping Jews immigrate—or “make aliyah” as Christian Zionists often call it—to Israel.
Building on that religious belief, the ICEJ also politically supports Israel and its policies.
As conflict between Ukraine and Russia grew in recent months, the ICEJ started encouraging Ukrainian Jews to immigrate and urging Christian Zionists worldwide to donate funds to pay for the immigration trips.
On May 4, the group welcomed 19 Ukrainian Jews who decided to immigrate, and announced they had raised funds from Christians to cover the trips for 100 Ukrainian Jews.
In announcing the move of the 19 new immigrants, the ICEJ proclaimed the individuals were “part of a significant increase in Ukrainian Jewish immigration to Israel this year in order to escape the unrest of recent months.”
The ICEJ claims it has helped more than 115,000 Jews “in making aliyah to Israel,” with 42,000 of those coming from Ukraine.
Many of the Ukrainian Jews came in the early 1990s as the USSR broke up and conflicts erupted in the region.
“The unfolding crisis in Ukraine has meant an even more uncertain future for the Jewish community there, and we have acted swiftly once again to bring needy and endangered Jews home from this troubled region,” ICEJ executive director Jürgen Bühler declared. “It is a privilege for our staff to welcome this first group home.”
Bühler, a licensed minister with the German Pentecostal Federation, has worked for the ICEJ since 1999 and has led the group since 2011.
He attends a congregation in the Messianic movement, which blends Jewish and Christian practices.
Following Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980—an act rejected by the United Nations—many nations protested by moving their official embassies to Tel Aviv.
In response, conservative evangelical and Pentecostal Christians founded the ICEJ to support Israel.
Although a self-proclaimed “embassy,” the ICEJ does not actually have embassy status in Jerusalem, but is instead a nonprofit organization.
The U.S. branch of ICEJ is headquartered in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and has annual revenues of more than $1.5 million.
However, the ICEJ-USA receives only a two-star rating (out of four) from Charity Navigator, mainly because of its one-star rating in financial performance due to high administrative expenses.
The ICEJ-USA director is Susan Michael, an Oral Roberts University graduate who often speaks and writes in support of Israel.
Other leaders of ICEJ-USA identified on their website and in recent 990 forms filed with the IRS include: Oklahoma City attorney Gary Bachman, who co-founded with his wife a pro-Israel nonprofit called Zion’s Gate International; Biola University professor of history George Giacumakis; and Allen Jackson, pastor of World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro and an outspoken opponent of the building of an Islamic Center in Murfreesboro.
The ICEJ boasts support from Israeli politicians and U.S. Christian figures. Among the Israeli politicians claimed as supporters: Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem mayors Nir Barkat and Teddy Kolleck, and former Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin, Ehud Olmert, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon.
U.S. Christian leaders endorsing the ICEJ include conservative televangelist Pat Robertson, conservative author and radio host Kay Arthur and Pentecostal minister and author Jane Hansen Hoyt. No Middle Eastern Christian leader is included among the endorsers.
The organization describes its theology as biblical Zionism, adhering to pre-millenialism and “support[ing] the right of the Jewish people to return to their homeland on scriptural grounds.”
ICEJ leaders have testified before Congress and lobbied U.S. politicians to back pro-Israel policies.
The ICEJ hopes to give Christians “the biblical perspective of recognizing the hand of God in Israel’s modern day restoration and the need to work with what God is doing, and bless it.”
This Christian Zionist philosophy of equating the modern, secular state of Israel with the biblical nation of Israel sparks criticism by Palestinian Christians.
In particular, some Christians critique Christian Zionists for endorsing Israel’s policies that burden and harm Palestinians through unbiblical practices.
Earlier this year, Palestinian Christian leaders held the third biannual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference with Christians from around the world attending.
Multiple speakers critiqued Christian Zionism for distorting the religious and political issues involved and preventing progress toward peace efforts in the region.
“Some Christians are suspicious of peace because they’ve heard sermons that delegate peace to the Antichrist’s work,” explained Alex Awad, pastor of East Jerusalem Baptist Church. “But the Bible calls us to be peacemakers. Could it be that rumors of war come true because we haven’t sought to advance a gospel of peace?”
Awad, who is also the dean of students at Bethlehem Bible College, talked about the previous Christ at the Checkpoint conference in an EthicsDaily.com Skype interview.
Several European Baptist Federation (EBF) leaders attended this year’s Christ at the Checkpoint.
The EBF not only includes Baptist groups in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but also in Ukraine and Russia.
While leaders of the ICEJ have emphasized problems in Ukraine and urged Jews to leave, EBF leaders have instead worked with Baptists and others in the nations to reduce tensions.
“There’s a sense in which Baptists and other Christians as well, I think, are standing in the gap between the groups at this time,” EBF General Secretary Tony Peck told EthicsDaily.com in a Skype interview.
For the ICEJ, however, the goal is not to stand in the gap and to help bring peace, but to instead add to the region’s instability.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.