JERUSALEM — If the Messiah descends from the Mount of Olives as foretold in the Bible, America's two biggest Christian broadcasters are well-positioned to cover it live thanks to recent acquisitions of adjacent Jerusalem studios on a hill overlooking the Old City.
Texas-based Daystar Television Network already beams a 24-hour-a-day live webcam from its terrace. Not to be outdone, Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network last month bought the building next door.
The dueling studios are part of an aggressive push by U.S. evangelical broadcasters seeking to gain a stronger foothold in the holy city. Their presence not only offers boasting rights with American viewers and contributors, but also — and more controversially — a platform for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jews in Israel.
In addition to its new multistory building, TBN is negotiating with Israel's Yes satellite television provider to secure a full-time home for its evangelical Shalom TV channel.
Daystar already airs its English-language programming in Israel with dedicated channels on both Yes and cable provider HOT Telecommunications Systems, claiming to be the first Christian evangelical broadcaster to transmit a gospel message to Israeli television sets 24 hours a day.
"The main thing we want to do is help sponsor what we call Messianic Jews, or Jews that have received Jesus Christ as their Messiah," said TBN co-founder Paul Crouch, who recently wrapped up a tour of Israel with 1,800 TBN supporters, most of them from America. "We want to do some Hebrew language programs to reach out to Jews and entice them to read the word of God and become what we call a completed Jew."
Such proselytizing angers Orthodox Jewish groups who say it threatens the character of a nation that was created as a home for Jewish refugees of the Holocaust. Christian proselytizing is legal in Israel, though the government has at times restricted and discouraged the practice; members of the Jewish faith do not seek to convert those of other faiths.
"One of the things I find offensive is that they are bragging about their missionary work," said Ellen Horowitz, research director at Jewish Israel, a grass-roots group created in 2008 to track and counteract Christian missionaries in Israel. "They're actually very in-your-face about it."
Horowitz said proselytizing is a touchy subject in Israel. "Our people have been through the wringer already with either persecution or assimilation," she said. "Now people finally get to a Jewish nation and someone pushes a copy of the New Testament in Hebrew at them. A sensitive line is being crossed."
When Daystar debuted in Israel in 2006, it created such a public uproar that the channel was temporarily suspended from the HOT network. It was restored after a court challenge.
Since then, Christian evangelical groups have quietly and steadily expanded their footprint in Jerusalem.
Last spring, evangelist organizer Mike Evans began soliciting donations from U.S. supporters for his $10-million purchase of a prime commercial building in Jerusalem's city center, where he plans to open a facility devoted to Christian evangelism.
In July, American missionary Rick Ridings, a nephew of Paul Crouch who operates a walk-in prayer center near Mt. Zion, hosted several hundred Israeli youths at a three-day gospel music and prayer festival in Tel Aviv.
Crouch said TBN, whose recently purchased building houses the Los Angeles Times Jerusalem bureau, is striving to promote Christianity in Israel, where the faith is sometimes overshadowed by the struggle between Judaism and Islam. Trinity Broadcasting already is one of the world's largest religious broadcasters, with 18 networks in seven languages.
"Christianity is not represented in Israel as well as it could," he said. "We hope to equalize that and give Christianity a better platform."
The latest inroads by evangelical Christians have not triggered the backlash that occurred in 2006 when Daystar went on the air. In fact, Crouch said TBN's biggest obstacle in Jerusalem so far is rival Daystar, which he said tried to block TBN's Shalom Channel from airing on Yes satellite.
"They raised a stink," Crouch said. "I guess some of our Christian brothers don't want the competition."
A Yes spokeswoman said negotiations with TBN are ongoing and a final deal has not been reached. Daystar officials declined to comment, but said in a statement that the company "loves and appreciates Israel."
Some Israelis are welcoming members of the American evangelical community as strategic partners, both politically and economically.
In addition to becoming the fastest-growing segment of Israel's tourism market, U.S. evangelicals tend to be staunchly pro-Israel, lobbying in Washington on the Israeli government's behalf on such matters as the Palestinian conflict or West Bank settlement construction.
Christian broadcasters have donated tens of millions of dollars in recent years to build Israeli schools, community centers, hospital wards and even synagogues. Part of the support is based upon their belief that the return of the Jewish people to Israel will usher in the second coming of Jesus.
Christian groups have forged close ties with Russian-born lawmakers in the parliament, or Knesset, and recently helped push through a law that extended property tax exemptions once available only to Jewish religious institutions to those owned by Christian congregations.
"They are much more sophisticated and calculated than they were before," Horowitz said. "With all the millions of dollars they are giving, it's harder for the government to say no."
Her group said the number of evangelical Christian congregations in Israel has grown to 150 with as many as 20,000 followers, up from an estimated 3,000 in 1987, based on estimates from the congregations.
Christian broadcasters boast to their viewers that they are seeing a record number of Jews convert to Christianity. "The harvest is coming in so fast," Crouch said.
Much of the growth is coming from the 1 million Russian immigrants who arrived in Israel during the 1990s. Many of the immigrants were never considered Jewish by Orthodox rabbis or had practiced Christianity in Russia.
"They see Russians as a way to get a foothold in Israel and create a Christian revival here," Horowitz said. "We don't have anything against Christians. But the Jewish people have to watch their backside to make sure this evangelical embrace does not become a hold that we can't get out of."