Sharon foes mock call for prayer
By Brian Murphy
By Brian Murphy
JERUSALEM — The question first appeared on a religious Web site: Is it right to join nationwide prayers for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon even if you despise him for forcing Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip?
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu replied it is not. It's wrong, he said, to offer prayers of hope if you believe otherwise in your heart.
The exchange — posted shortly after Sharon suffered a massive stroke Wednesday — highlighted the passions binding an unusual nexus of ultra-nationalist settlers, doomsday zealots and Christian evangelicals such as Pat Robertson. In the span of a few years, their views of Sharon have swung from ally to betrayer of biblical prophecy and his people.
The appeal for prayers also served as a commentary on the ideological rifts among Jewish religious leaders: liberals who see promise in Sharon's legacy and hard-liners who curse it.
Their differences grew sharper after last year's Gaza pullout and could intensify in the campaign for March 28 elections, which are expected to become a referendum on Sharon's vision of how to live alongside Palestinians.
"Sharon was once the hero of the religious Orthodox and the right-wingers. He helped bring them into the power structure," said Oz Almog, who studies Israeli religious trends at the Emek Yazre'el Academic College. "Then he actually spit in their face. He told them, 'We don't need you anymore.' "
The ultimate torment, in many eyes, was the order to remove Jewish settlements and troops from Gaza, which was seized in 1967 in a war where Sharon led an armored division. Political hard-liners saw the Gaza withdrawal as a traitorous concession to Palestinians. Some conservative Christian and Jewish groups framed it in epic terms: an affront to their interpretations of Scripture and the duty to support a Jewish nation.
And a growing host of evangelical churches, mostly in the United States, take the calling to the furthest levels. They consider a strong Israel essential to bring the Second Coming and the apocalyptic "end of days." These so-called "Christian Zionists," which trace their roots to the 19th century, now give millions of dollars in aid each year to settlements and other Israeli associations. A group of Israeli lawmakers has set up a lobby group to promote the links.
"They have developed their own kind of Jewish-Christian theology that's a combination of nationalism and orthodox religion," Almog said.
It has bred a level of anger against Sharon that makes even some Arab commentary seem tame. Many mocked the appeal for prayers by Israel's chief rabbis and Vice Premier Ehud Olmert, who has temporarily assumed Sharon's duties.
"We aren't praying for this evil person," said Baruch Marzel, a leader in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron. "He went against God. He went against the Bible. He betrayed his own country."
Last year, a group of Jewish extremists took part in an ancient curse ceremony called "pulsa denura" that called for Sharon's death.
On Thursday, the evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson suggested Sharon's stroke was divine punishment "against those who 'divide my land.' " He added on his Christian Broadcasting Network: "You read the Bible and he says 'This is my land,' and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, 'No, this is mine.' "
The White House called Robertson's comments "wholly inappropriate and offensive."
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's ethics and religious liberty commission, said he was "stunned and appalled that Pat Robertson would claim to know the mind of God concerning whether particular tragic events ... were the judgments of God."
Those closely involved in bolstering Christian-Jewish ties cringed at remarks by Robertson and others.
"When a man is struggling for his life, and groups and people are passing all sorts of judgments, it's very distasteful," said Malcolm Hedding, a director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, which encourages Christian support for Israel.
At the Western Wall — revered by Jews as part of the second biblical temple — thousands of worshippers packed the stone courtyard for prayers after sundown yesterday, the beginning of the Jewish holy day.
The rabbi overseeing the site, Shmuel Rabinovitch, said he has received dozens of e-mails from around the world offering wishes for Sharon. The messages were printed and tucked into the wall's crevasses — a centuries-old tradition.
Yona Metzger, one of Israel's chief rabbis, said a group of worshippers have maintained a round-the-clock vigil at the Western Wall. He has also spoken to rabbis around the world to coordinate constant prayers.
"I hope that God will hear our prayers and blessings," Metzger said.