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CHRISTIANS DRAWN TO ISRAEL TO PRAY FOR PROTECTION

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CHRISTIANS DRAWN TO ISRAEL TO PRAY FOR PROTECTION

With Israelis constantly on guard against Palestinian terrorism and now carrying gas masks and sealing rooms in case of a replay of the Iraqi missile strikes of the first Gulf War, Christians worldwide are not only praying for this embattled nation but also coming in person to express solidarity.

" I have seen more tour groups here in the North than I have for some time," Eric Morey told ICEJ News Thursday morning from his popular Christian gift shop "The Galilee Experience," on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. "We have noticed an upsurge of Christian visitors in March."

"I stepped into a hotel here in Tiberias this morning and three large groups were having breakfast" Morey said, noting his surprise even as news was breaking of hostilities in Baghdad just before dawn.

He also saw a hotel manager giving a gas mask demonstration to two different tour groups in the hotel lobby earlier this week.

March and April are normally peak season for Christian pilgrims touring the Holy Land, but two-and-a-half years of the violent Palestinian intifada have crippled the tourism industry in Israel. Yet Morey related that these groups are all saying they want to be here now to stand with Israel and insist they are not afraid.

Morey says the Christian visitors he has encountered in recent days are mainly Americans and include a group of students from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois and a group of high school students from Wichita, Kansas. Other large church groups have come from California and Florida.

In Jerusalem, one Christian tour group from Ashland, Virginia just ended a week-long visit that was timed to help build a prayer shield over Israel, while a Finnish group is also touring Bible sites and offering prayers for safety.

Meanwhile, new arrival Michel Chevalier, a minister from southern France, told ICEJ NEWS today that he felt a strong urging to come to Jerusalem to pray at this critical time. Chevalier says he will stay in a local hotel and try to take part in local fellowships and home prayer gatherings.

On Thursday afternoon, the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem hosted a group of 10 pilgrims from across the United States that expressed confidence their timely visit was not a coincidence.

One member of the group, Fred Collman from Portland, Oregon, said he was so determined to come at this time that it cost him his job. "It will be easy to find work when I get back. I felt I had to be here," he said.

Veteran tour leader Jeanne Corwin of Charlotte, North Carolina said, "This group is like that. They are committed to Israel."

Back in the Galilee, the region has become a special prayer concern since it is perhaps the most vulnerable area to attack in Israel during the unfolding regional conflict, due to the threat posed by Hizb'Allah from south Lebanon.

Israeli intelligence estimates the Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia has up to 10,000 rockets and missiles deployed along Israel's northern border, most short range but some capable of hitting Haifa. The deadly arsenal includes hundreds of Grad missiles, dozens of short-range missiles like the "Fajar 3" and "Fajar 5," and longer-range rockets of Iranian make that can reach 40-70 km.

A Lebanese paper reported on Wednesday the terror militia's infamous Katyusha rockets have been rolled out ready for firing.

The Hizb'Allah threat also includes newly supplied Iranian rockets with longer ranges that are capable of striking Tel Aviv, according to recent intelligence, and there are credible reports that chemical warheads may have been supplied as well. Iran has even deployed units from its elite Republican Guards to man missile batteries in the Beka'a Valley.

But Lars Enarson, a Swedish minister now based in Katzrin, on the Golan, has been leading prayer vigils for protection of the North and he believes that while Hizb'Allah may continue to fire a few rounds now and then, they will largely hold back for now.

Hizb'Allah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah suggested the other day that the US-led attack on Iraq may be a blessing in disguise, explained Enarson. Nasrallah said the US may take out an out-of-favor secular Arab regime in Baghdad, but Iraq will remain intact as an Arab/Muslim power, while the momentum will increase to reprimand Israel.

"My burden right now is to pray for President Bush," Enarson said. "That he does not line up with the stored up Arab anger and European pressure to sacrifice Israel after the Iraq campaign is over. I have the sense that Israel's greatest danger will come later on, in the period after Iraq."