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.
"It breaks my heart to see the president of the United States reserve more criticism for Israel for building homes in their capital city than he does for (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad for building nuclear weapons with which to threaten the peace and security of the entire free world," Franks said.
The relationship between evangelical Christians and Israel isn't without its wrinkles.
Many Israelis are troubled by what they suspect is the source of the unqualified support — a belief by some evangelical groups in an apocalyptic battle between good and evil in which Jesus returns, and Jews either accept Christianity or perish.
A ultra-Orthodox Jewish former mayor of Jerusalem, Uri Lupolianski, refused to accept funds from evangelical Christians for fear of their proselytizing. His successor, the current mayor, Nir Barkat, has revoked the policy, but some skepticism still persists.
Moderate Israelis are also uneasy with evangelical backing, as the Christians back the hard-line nationalist Israeli camp that opposes giving up control of any of the West Bank, though the majority of Israelis favor creation of a Palestinian state there, and even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a veteran hawk, has grudgingly accepted that.
Israel's relations with Christians have also been strained by a series of recent vandalism attacks, including this week, in which anti-Christian graffiti was spray-painted on churches and monasteries.
Israel has about 155,000 Christian citizens, less than 2 percent of its 7.9 million population, but the repeated defacing of their sacred sites has shocked the country and drawn official condemnation. Extremist Jewish settlers, angry over what they consider pro-Palestinian policies by the Israeli government, are suspected.
Speaking to reporters, Israeli Cabinet Minister Yuli Edelstein dismissed the vandalism as the work of "a few crazies" and thanked participants for supporting Israel. He said the conference "allays the feeling in Israel that the world is against us."
Leia Vaks, a 28-year old Israeli who handed out snacks at the colorful parade, said she was pleased by the turnout.
"This shows the world that Israel isn't alone," she said, smiling.