JERUSALEM--Thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world are in Jerusalem this week celebrating the Jewish Feast of Succoth at the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration.
Some 4,000 Christians from more than 70 countries came for the weeklong ICEJ event to express their support and love for the Jewish people and the State of Israel and to raise their voices on behalf of a united city of Jerusalem.
This is the 30th Feast celebration for the organization. ICEJ spokesman David Parsons said they are using it to reaffirm the ICEJ's original mandate to stand as a global Christian community for a "united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty."
Standing through the Years
The ICEJ held its first celebration of the Feast in September 1980, when Israelis felt a sense of isolation concerning their historic claim to Jerusalem, Parsons told reporters this week.
Thirteen nations had moved their embassies to Tel Aviv in protest against the Israeli government's passage of the "Jerusalem Law," which enshrined in law a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Parsons said.
In response, some 1,000 Christians from 40 nations opened the ICEJ as an act of comfort and solidarity with Israel, he said.
No country recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital even though Israel considers it to be so and its seat of government is in the city.
Parsons said that the ICEJ was re-committing itself and its international branches toward "diplomatic recognition of this city."
Pressure to Divide
Israel is under increasing international pressure to divide the city of Jerusalem and give the eastern section, including the ancient holy places to the Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
U.S. President Barack Obama has called on Israel to halt all building in the eastern part of Jerusalem, and the West Bank, which the Bible calls Judea and Samaria.
But Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat received thunderous applause when he told participants at the Feast on Wednesday that freedom of religion in Jerusalem could only be maintained if the city remained united under Israeli sovereignty.
"Just last month over 200,000 Muslims came to pray on the Temple Mount," Barkat said in reference to the recent Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. "This week hundreds of thousands of Jews and Christians from around the world came over to Jerusalem to celebrate Succoth and the Feast of Tabernacles."
Barkat pledged to do everything in his power to ensure that "every person of faith around the world" would be "free to practice their beliefs openly" in Jerusalem.
"To ensure the freedom of religion of people of all faiths, we must keep Jerusalem united, undivided, sovereign capital of Israel," he said.
The ICEJ's Feast is the largest annual tourist event in Israel and the largest solidarity mission to Israel this year, injecting some $12 to $15 million into the local economy.
Many Israelis appreciate the support that they receive from the ICEJ and Christian pilgrims. Israeli Tourism Ministry official Rafi Ben Hur said earlier this week that whenever there is a crisis in tourism, it's the Christian Embassy that puts an end to it.