When it comes to Christian Zionism, most people think of the United States – and with good cause. Groups like Christians United For Israel (CUFI) have been among the leading lights in Israel advocacy, with a highly motivated and active grassroots base and support from a diverse range of senior clergymen and women. In terms of numbers, they outstrip even their Jewish pro-Israel counterparts, and in terms of commitment and activism, they often put them to shame.
Less well-known are the Christian Zionist movements outside of the US, for example in Europe. This fact is also, to an extent, not without good cause: for a variety of reasons, Christian Zionists in Europe, while certainly active, have never managed to emulate the success of their American counterparts.
But that could be about to change. In the UK, something of a revolution is brewing, thanks to the vision and tireless efforts of one quietly-determined pastor in reaching out to both Christian and Jewish communities alike.
Dr. Oliver Manyemba is a Pentecostal Christian pastor, as well as a trained investment banker and lecturer at a top London university. He is also a one-man powerhouse who is shaking up the face of UK Christian Zionism – and, by extension, both wider Israel activism and Jewish-Christian community relations.
Born in Zimbabwe, Manyemba was active for several years in some of the more established Christian Zionist organizations in London, but noticed a frustrating trend: while longstanding groups were indeed working hard to fight Israel's corner, they were doing so without reaching beyond a very narrow demographic base of white, middle-aged (or older) Church of England Christians. Millions of potentially sympathetic Christians, most notably among Black and Asian communities, were not being reached, and Manyemba resolved to fix that.
It was at that point that our paths first crossed, some three years ago. At the time, this author was also on the London pro-Israel activist scene, and as part of efforts to cultivate ties with non-Jewish allies I was introduced to Oliver, who was looking to study the Bible's authentic Jewish interpretations. Apart from becoming my first (and so far only) Christian Bible-study partner, he shared with me his incredibly ambitious vision to mobilize hundreds of thousands of previously un-engaged Christians nationwide to the cause of Israel – a vision which at the time appeared a thousand miles away.
Today, he leads Christian Watchmen over Zion (CWZ), a group that most British Jews will have never heard of, but which is now rapidly realizing that vision by emerging as the fastest-growing pro-Israel movement in the country.
It is nondenominational, with members spanning the gamut of the confusing mesh of Christian denominations in Britain; from Roman Catholics to Church of England and Eastern Christians. But CWZ's core constituency and driving force is the rapidly-growing Pentecostal movement, particularly among the African and Afro-Caribbean communities.
Its objective is to reconnect Christians to authentic Biblical teachings – most importantly, the place of the cause of Israel or "Zion" and Jerusalem as a central focus of Christian belief.
And its success in just two years has been staggering, drawing in thousands of grassroots members along with an ever-increasing number of churches and a diverse range Christian leaders.
Dispelling ignorance, standing with Zion
One of them, Archbishop Dr. Abraham C. C. Evangelou, was present along with a larger CWZ delegation at a farewell party for the outgoing Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub last month. It was the largest and most diverse Christian group present, and the only one to include such senior clergy, underlining the central position the group has already taken on the pro-Israel scene.
Evangelou, who started his ministerial career in the Greek Orthodox Church, now heads the Apostolic Christian Church and Ixthus Church Council, the latter of which boasts some two million members worldwide, including 1,500 ordained ministers, and has 40 churches in England alone.
CWZ's core message, he explained, is summed up by the Psalmist: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem."
"Our aim is to educate the Christian world as to the relationship we should be having with Israel, and to build a relationship with our Israeli and Hebrew brethren who are the foundational background to our Christian roots and Christian faith. We feel indebted to them for preserving the Scriptures for us to benefit from."
"CWZ has been received very warmly in my churches, and many of our members have already joined. Many of my bishops who I consecrated have become prominent members of CWZ," he said. "We also have a good relationship with Christian Friends of Israel, and I work with them too – anything positive, pro-Israel, we support that."
But why, given the prominence of the Land of Israel and its connection to the Jewish people in the Bible, do Christians need educating about it at all?
"Ignorance, misconceptions and also sometimes anti-Semitism," answers Dr. Evangelou.
"The early church had a negative perception of Judaism and the Jewish people," he notes, rejecting out of hand the replacement theology still found in some corners today, including most of those which gravitate towards the anti-Israel movement. "We're disqualifying that perception and showcasing all the good things about Israel and the Jewish people. I believe education is the most important thing, and that discredits any prejudice, racism or anti-Semitism."
That message – reconnecting to the Bible's "Hebrew roots," rejecting replacement theology (and with it the imperative to proselytize Jews), and focusing on the centrality of the Holy Land in Christian doctrine – is to a great extent the driving-force of contemporary Christian Zionism, from major groups such as CUFI to emerging innovators like Hayovel.
Oliver Manyemba's vision for CWZ is to be the doctrinal or ideological powerhouse of that movement.
What that requires, first and foremost, is to "open Christians' eyes" to the real-life application of the Bible. It might sound strange, but even many church-going, Bible-believing Christians often fail to associate the "Israel" of the Bible with the real thing.
"In Zimbabwe, when we prayed for the peace of Jerusalem, we thought of our families or our village. But that's not what God had in mind – He was talking about the real, physical Jerusalem!" Manyemba explains.
It's a message echoed by another prominent CWZ leader, Bishop E. O’Reilly Buchanan – one of the most senior Christian clergy involved in the movement. A charismatic speaker and humanitarian activist, he oversees churches from the UK to Nigeria and Zimbabwe.
He describes CWZ as a movement whose emergence is long overdue. "It's like an oasis, a glass of cool water after journeying in the desert."
But Bishop Buchanan also emphasizes that the potential was always there. Quoting the Biblical Prophet Hosea ("My people perish for lack of knowledge") he too insisted that ignorance, rather than hatred or conscious anti-Israel sentiment, was responsible for the lack of active support for Israel among many Christians.
CWZ's rapid success (their bi-annual conferences attract thousands already, including both Jewish and Christian community figures) is merely the logical result of opening people's eyes to the truth, he said. "It's like a spring that comes up from the ground – even if you block it, it will always find a way to burst forth."
Another key to their success is a focus on young blood. Reverend Jacqueline Brown, a pastor of Jamaican origin, runs CWZ's Youth Program.
She also regularly takes Christian groups to visit Israel – something she believes is a must for any self-respecting Christian supporter of Israel.
"Standing with Israel means physically going there as well, to experience the holy sites, the people, the land, and to connect with them," she explained.
That includes places like Shiloh, Bet El, Har Grizim and other key Biblical sites in Judea and Samaria. One thing all the CWZ activists I met had in common was their rejection of efforts to delegitimize Israel's presence in those areas, particularly given its centrality in the Biblical – and Jewish-historical – narrative.
A grassroots revolution?
While CWZ's efforts are largely education, the groundswell of pro-Israel sentiment it is fomenting is encouraging an emerging grassroots movement of Christian activists on the ground.
Pastor Tim Gutman founded "Mordecai Voice" several years ago, with the single aim of "standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel and the Jewish community." His inspiration for the movement – as its name hints – is the Biblical Mordechai's fateful words to Queen Esther, which he says underlines the role Christians should take in supporting Israel: "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father's house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?"
Like CWZ it seemed to emerge out of nowhere, and its first event (in 2011) saw an eclectic mix of Christians joined by a handful of curious Jewish activists at a solidarity rally for Israel outside the British parliament.
Gutman – whose father was a Jewish refugee from Europe – says he's greatly encouraged by the sudden invigoration of the UK Christian-Zionist scene. While not formally linked, his group now works closely with CWZ, and he hopes the movement will swell in numbers, giving a sometimes embattled, demoralized Jewish community (at least vis-a-vis Israel activism) a much-needed boost.
"I feel the work of groups like CWZ and the Israel Key conference [another emerging Christian pro-Israel group – ed.] are seeing a groundswell of unprecedented support for Israel and there is a real sense of optimism that this will translate into a louder and louder voice of love for Israel – the kind America enjoys today," he said.
"We have a real sense of excitement at the growing love and understanding among the Christian Community for the importance of Israel and our passion is to see us proclaim this publicly, so the Jewish community will know and of course Israel will know: we stand with you shoulder to shoulder."
As part of those efforts, Mordecai Voice holding a solidarity rally in Golders Green, the heart of London's Jewish community, on September 20. The date was picked to coincide with the latest planned installment of neo-Nazi activities targeting British Jews. Although previous far-right efforts flopped spectacularly, Gutman says it's clear British Jewry is under attack, usually from the same people who constantly vilify the Jewish state.
"Our aim is to show the Jewish community both in the UK and of course Israel that there are thousands upon thousands of Christians who support, love and believe in them," he said. "We want to see Christian and Jewish groups united to proclaim publicly that Israel is not alone and the Jewish community are not alone in the face of increasing anti-Israel rhetoric and blatant anti-Semitism."
To his fellow Christians his message is simple: put your money where your mouth is and be active.
"Lots of Christians say 'Yeah, we love Israel,' so we're telling them: Come out and show your love!"