When Shawn Landis, an evangelical Christian from Pennsylvania, heard about the October 7 Hamas attack on southern Israel, he knew he would come to Israel to volunteer as soon as it was safe. Five months later, he was chopping vegetables in a Tel Aviv kitchen, preparing meals for Israeli soldiers.

Evangelicals have been among Israel’s fiercest foreign supporters for years, particularly in the United States, where their significant political influence has helped shape the Israel policy of recent Republican administrations.

They believe Israel is key to an end-times prophecy that will bring about the return of the Christian Messiah. Many of these Christians support Israel due to Old Testament writings that Jews are God’s chosen people and that Israel is their rightful homeland.

“In the Scripture it instructs us to support Israel, and sometimes the best time to support someone is when they’re grieving,” said Landis, who has been on four previous faith-based trips to Israel. “Friendship is not just about being there for the good times, it’s also about the rough times.”

Landis is part of a wave of religious “voluntourism” to Israel, organized trips that include some kind of volunteering aspect connected to the war in Gaza.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry estimates around one-third to half of the approximately 3,000 daily visitors expected to arrive in March are part of faith-based volunteer trips. Before the fighting, around 15,000 visitors arrived in Israel per day, about half of whom were Christian, according to Tourism Ministry statistics.

In 2019, the latest tourism statistics available that were not impacted by COVID-19, about 25% of visitors arrived on organized trips, according to the Tourism Ministry.

A study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that almost half of Israelis volunteered in some capacity during the early weeks of the war. But many Israeli volunteers have returned to work and school, and now international visitors are filling the gaps.

In the U.S., support for Israel has become a top priority for evangelical Christians during a presidential election year. They are among the most outspoken backers of Israel’s handling of the conflict, and Republicans have faced pressure to hew not just to traditional Republican support for Israel but to beliefs rooted in the Bible.

The war began with Hamas’ attack in southern Israel in which militants killed around 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage. Israel responded with an invasion of the Gaza Strip that so far has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians.

On October 11, dozens of leading evangelicals signed a statement of support for Israel organized by the public policy wing of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest evangelical faith group in the U.S.

One of the key pro-Israel groups in the U.S. is Christians United for Israel, founded and led by evangelical pastor John Hagee. CUFI says it has raised and dispersed more than $3 million to support Israeli first responders, health care workers, and survivors of the October 7 attack.

Landis was part of a two-week volunteer trip organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. The evangelical group has put together five volunteer trips since January and expects to bring half a dozen more in the future. Normally, ICEJ brings about 6,000 Christian visitors to Israel annually.

Like Landis, Claudio Pichardo, a 37-year-old from Colombia studying business in Holland, was inspired by Scripture to join the ICEJ trip. “This is the best way I can help, because posting on Facebook doesn’t help,” he said.

When the war started, many international airlines suspended flights and tourism stopped, aside from a handful of Jewish and Christian solidarity missions. Some major airlines resumed flights to Israel in recent weeks, and others plan to soon.

Peleg Lewi, the foreign affairs adviser to the Tourism Ministry, said the faith-based solidarity missions boost morale. They can also kick-start overall tourism to Israel after a cycle of war or violence, he said.

With the war in its sixth month, Israel is under growing international pressure to do more to end the suffering of civilians in Gaza, including allowing in more aid. Aid groups say the fighting has displaced most of the territory’s population and pushed a quarter of the population to the brink of famine. Hospitals have reported that some children have died of hunger.

Many Israelis fear the world is forgetting about October 7.

Elizabeth Ødegaard, a trip participant from Norway, said she was surprised by how emotional Israelis get when they meet international visitors who have come to support them.

“Many people tell us, `The whole world hates us. Everyone is against us,’ so I want to say to them, `You’re not alone,'” she said. “I know the people of Israel are important to God. These are my brothers and sisters, and when they attack Israel, they attack me too.”

ICEJ trip participants visited hard-hit communities in southern Israel, including the site where the shells of hundreds of burned-out cars are being stored, many from the Tribe of Nova music festival, where 364 people were killed.

“It was humbling and sobering to be there, to know what happened a few months ago and to see Israeli resilience,” said Landis.

During such trips, visitors join volunteer initiatives that sprang up in Israel over the past five months, providing extra hands for farmers struggling to harvest crops, cooking meals for families who have a parent serving in the reserves or sorting donations for evacuees still living in hotels.

One initiative is Citrus & Salt, which previously hosted cooking classes and tours of Tel Aviv’s markets for tourists. When the war started, it pivoted to making more than 35,000 donated meals.

“It really helps boost morale for people to come from abroad to Israel in a time of conflict, to physically say, ‘I’m here to help. What do you need?'” said Aliya Fastman, a native of Berkeley, California, who has lived in Israel for over a decade and runs Citrus & Salt with her sister. “Chopping onions is no small thing when you fly across the world to do it.”

Melanie Lidman

Associated Press

TEL AVIV, Israel

Maya Alleruzzo (AP)