JERUSALEM (RNS) — Gerald McDermott, an American Anglican priest and retired professor of theology, had visited Israel 22 times before his most recent trip. The author of two books on Christian Zionism and the meaning of Israel to Christianity, he was invited to join a mission in late January to show solidarity with the Israeli people in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre.
“I’d seen most of the Oct. 7 videos,” McDermott said, referring to footage of the atrocities committed by Hamas at several kibbutzim and a dance party near Israel’s border with Gaza on that warm autumn day. The attack left 1,200 people in Israel dead and 240 held hostage in Gaza.
But nothing prepared McDermott, he said, for encountering the scene at Kibbutz Nir Oz, where Hamas entered the home of the Bibas family and tortured them before kidnapping them.
“You see all the blood on the walls, the bullet holes, the baby’s toys,” McDermott said the day after he and dozens of other pastors from around the world visited. “What we saw in living color was the hatred that Satan himself has for the Jewish people. Satan hates the Jews because he knows God loves them. Satan is living in and inspiring Hamas,” McDermott asserted.
The mission, organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, included a visit to Sderot, a Gaza border city that has sustained numerous rocket attacks by Hamas in the past two decades. The group also went to northern Israel, from where tens of thousands of Israeli residents have been displaced by missiles launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The participants, who hail from 18 countries, heard eyewitness testimony from massacre victims and some of the relatives of the 136 Israelis still being held captive.
The number of visitors to Israel has decreased dramatically since its war with Hamas began. Airlines have reduced the number of fights, and the hotels have been packed with evacuees. But in December, groups of evangelical Christians began to arrive, according to those who have organized the trips.
“In the past two months we’ve seen dozens, if not hundreds, of Christian groups coming to Israel,” said Josh Reinstein, director of the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, a not-for-profit organization that encourages support for Israel among politicians and faith leaders abroad.
Since Oct. 7, evangelical Christians have donated tens of millions of dollars to Israel’s first responders and nongovernmental organizations that assist war victims.
“Christians, and not only in America, are supporting Israel like never before,” Reinstein said, pointing to pro-Israel rallies sponsored by Christians in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America. In the U.S. especially, evangelical Christians actively lobby lawmakers to support Israel. Prominent American evangelicals made their voices heard loudly at November’s March for Israel on the National Mall in Washington.
Pastor Lisa Powell, the founder of Lisa Powell Ministries International in Corona, California, said she came to Israel in January on her 38th visit “to really see what I could do for the people here and pray about how we can be a blessing in a more tangible way.”
Because the group stayed in a Jerusalem hotel that is hosting dozens of evacuee families from Sderot, Powell had the opportunity to sit with them and learn about how they are coping with loss and displacement.
“That really pulled on my heart,” Powell said. “I’m a grandmother of 18 and also a great-grandmother. Entire families are staying in one hotel room. They are in a state of trauma, but they are strong, strengthened by being together as a community. Under any other circumstances they would be in a refugee camp, but the Israeli government is assisting them.”
Given the broad support for Gaza’s Palestinians among many young people, Powell hopes to bring a delegation of Christian college students to Israel so they can experience the country for themselves. “They only know what they see in the media and on TikTok, which is targeting the younger generation to disillusion them and to turn them against Israel,” the faith leader said.
Nick Hansen, the co-pastor of a Pentecostal church in Denmark, was in Israel on Oct. 7 to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles. While the shock of that day has subsided, he said, “there is now a somberness, a silence, a void without joy and without peace,” in Israel. “Everyone seems to be on high alert, on guard for the next attack.”
Hansen said he felt compelled to come on the mission with the other pastors to see the carnage for himself. “Sitting in Europe and watching the news, we wonder whether Israel is going too far. Being here, you understand the sheer evil of Oct. 7. It was a celebration of death, a brutality that doesn’t exist even in nature,” he said.
Pastor Ken Soltys, the founder of Ken Soltys Ministries in Hayesville, North Carolina, said he was deeply affected by the pastors’ encounters with the families of Israeli hostages in a Jerusalem hotel. Shelly Shem-Tov described the kidnapping of her son Omer Shem-Tov, explaining that he has asthma and celiac disease.
“Omer is our youngest. We call him our sunshine. He’s a good boy who went to a festival to dance,” the mother told the pastors. “I hope you will go home and tell your community our story. I hope this nightmare will end and I will hug my sunshine.”