JERUSALEM (AP) — Waving blue and white Israeli flags, thousands of evangelical Christians from around the world filled streets of downtown Jerusalem on Thursday in a show of support for the Jewish state.
The annual march during the weeklong Jewish Sukkot holiday brings together Christians from dozens of countries.
Evangelical Christians are known as strong supporters of Israel, providing financial help and political backing, especially in the U.S. Even so, their hard-line views toward Palestinians and suspect religious motivations make some moderate Israelis and Jews abroad uncomfortable.
"This is the real United Nations," said Sheila Hakes, 41, from Alabama. "Israelis are our brothers and sisters, so we must protect them from Iran and evil," a reference to Iran's suspicious nuclear program, adding, "Jesus will come here again."
Evangelical support for Israel is rooted in Christian Zionism, which calls for the return of Jewish exiles to the Holy Land to fulfill Biblical prophecies. Over the past several decades, key figures in the evangelical movement have lobbied the U.S. government to give greater support for Israel.
Thursday's event was organized by the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, a group that promotes ties between Israel and the world's Christian communities. The group also sponsored a conference this week that drew more than 5,000 people from nearly 90 countries, including 25 parliamentarians from various nations.
Another prominent group, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, said it raises more than $110 million a year for charitable causes in Israel.
This strong relationship could be important in a U.S. election year. Evangelicals make up a powerful voting bloc, and some cast their votes based on a candidate's position toward Israel. That is likely to help Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who has frequently criticized Obama's foreign policy, saying the president has "thrown Israel under the bus."
One of this week's participants, U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, used the conference to criticize Obama's Mideast policy. The American president has had a frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disagreeing over key issues like Jewish settlements in the West Bank and how to confront Iran's nuclear program.