The politics of blessings

Over the past decade, support from Western Christian groups have become an increasingly dominant force in Israel’s relationships with Africa.

Photo by John Price on Unsplash.

On a sunny morning in early January 2016, a motorboat was making its way through Lake Victoria to Bussi, a small island situated a few kilometers west of Entebbe. On board were two foreign visitors: Deputy Ambassador Nadav Peldman from the Israeli embassy in Kenya, and Jos van Westing, the Fundraising and Development manager of the Evangelical Zionist organization Christians for Israel International. The two were traveling to Bussi to attend a five-day “repentance conference” for officers of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), organized by Christians for Israel’s Ugandan branch.

Christians for Israel’s office in Uganda was established in 2009 by Drake Kanaabo, a known evangelist from one of the most popular and oldest Pentecostal churches in Uganda, the Redeemed of the Lord Evangelistic Church. The organization’s offices are conveniently located in central Kampala, close to the Ugandan Parliament, and its members have been participating on a regular basis in “prayer breakfasts” in this institution and organizing various outreach events among Ugandan churches, government officials, and political elites. They also run pilgrimage tours to the Holy Land and host Israeli Independence Day celebrations.

The 2016 conference in Bussi was organized by Kanaabo in cooperation with several high-ranking UPDF officers. It brought together more than 150 Christian military men who gathered to pray and fast in order to repent, as members of the Ugandan military, for their country’s mistreatment of Israel during the period of Idi Amin’s rule. “These people, when they knelt down to confess, all of them burst into tears,” one volunteer of Christians for Israel later described the event, in which the officers pleaded with Peldman to forgive Uganda on behalf of the Jewish Nation. “It was historical. And we believe God forgave us, forgave our military.”

There is a long history of Western Evangelical support of Zionism and Israel, particularly, since the 1970s, from Christian groups in the US. Over the past decade, such support has become an increasingly dominant force in Israel’s relationships with African leaders and peoples as well. The Evangelical theological justifications for support of Israel mean little to Jewish Israelis, and Israeli diplomats also often stress the importance of establishing Israel’s image in Africa as a modern, tech-savvy nation and not only as the ancient Holy Land many Africans know from the Bible. And yet the pro-Israel messages Evangelicals promote, their suspicion of Islam, their urge to express unconditional support of Israeli policies, and their expanding influence on public life in many parts of Africa render them invaluable allies of the Jewish state.

Support for Israel comes from various Christian movements in Africa, but the most dominant among them are the Pentecostal (or “neo-charismatic”) churches that have emerged in West Africa since the 1980s and have gained immense popularity across the continent, influencing the doctrines and practices of other denominations as well. Supporting the spread of Evangelical Zionist theologies among these churches, however, are also a host of foreign groups. The Africa‒Israel Initiative, a Norwegian organization that seeks to create “a highway of blessings from Israel to Africa and from Africa to Israel,” is one of them. Christians United for Israel (CUFI)—America’s largest Christian pro-Israel lobby—is another.

Although Christian Zionist theologies and practices vary widely, the fascination of different conservative Evangelical groups with the Jewish People and Israel is commonly grounded in their literal interpretation of the Bible. Most fundamentally, Christian Zionists reject what they call “replacement theology,” that is, the notion that the Jews have lost their significance as God’s chosen after rejecting the messiahship of Jesus and were “replaced” by the church. This interpretation of the New Testament has been propagated by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches for centuries. But a close reading of the scriptures, many Evangelicals argue, indicates that it is false. God’s covenant with the people of Israel is still valid.

This conviction has several implications of political significance. One is that whoever “blesses” the Jewish people—and by implication, the modern state of Israel—is believed to be rewarded with divine blessings. This is based on God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 to bless whoever blesses him and curse whoever curses him. Another implication of the rejection of “replacement theology” is that the Jews are understood to have a central role to play in bringing about the end times and the Millennial Kingdom. Evangelicals thus often view Israel’s wealth, military prowess, and developmental achievements as clear indications of blessings and righteousness, and its ongoing conflicts as the fulfilment of biblical prophesies.

There are good reasons, therefore, that African Pentecostal churches have found Christian Zionist theologies persuasive and appealing. The notion that pro-Israel activism can have positive consequences resonates strongly with the Pentecostal emphasis on healing, entrepreneurship, prosperity, and the favorable powers of the Holy Spirit. The rejection of mainstream “replacement theology”—portrayed as a misleading doctrine implanted in people’s minds by foreign missionary churches—similarly resonates with the born-again concern with biblical authenticity. For spiritual movements relentlessly preoccupied with the uncovering of falsities and the clearing of doubts, the state of Israel is increasingly becoming an undisputed index of divine truth and revelation.

These trends, of course, have not gone unnoticed in Jerusalem. “We are interested in ties with any religious, ethnic and political group, and it doesn’t matter whether it is Muslim, Evangelical or Catholic or anything else,” Gideon Behar, previously the head of the Africa Bureau at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained. “But the fact that there are Evangelical communities that are becoming larger and stronger everywhere in Africa… these communities naturally have a stronger connection with Israel, and a stronger urge to have links with us, and they are certainly a factor that is increasingly encouraging African countries to strengthen their ties with Israel.”

Consider, for example, Nigeria—the epicenter of Africa’s “Pentecostal revolution.” Members of Nigeria’s Pentecostal elite, such as Chris Oyakhilome, TB Joshua, and Enoch Adeboye— celebrity preachers with a high-profile media presence, representing churches with branches across the world and influencing millions of believers—have visited the Holy Land in recent years. Some returned, multiple times, accompanied by hundreds of pilgrims, regularly sharing impressive footage from their trips on social media and their popular TV channels. Prophet TB Joshua, founder of the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Lagos, was recently named “Tourism Goodwill Ambassador” by the Israeli Minister of Tourism after holding a two-day mass prayer event in Nazareth.

Zionist rhetoric is prevalent in these circles, and hence the warm welcome from Israeli officials. “The problems that we are seeing between the Jews and the rest of the world, is because they are the favorites of God,” Nigerian mega-pastor Enoch Adeboye of the Redeemed Christian Church of God explained in 2011 while visiting Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. “When you are special to God, then automatically the devil wouldn’t like you either.” In line with the imperative to bless Israel, in his regular pilgrimage tours to Israel in recent years, Adeboye also donated several ambulances to the Israeli national emergency service and disaster recovery organizations.

Pentecostal elites like Adeboye, as Ebenezer Obadare shows, are powerful actors in the country’s political landscape. President Goodluck Jonathan (2010‒2015), a Christian from the country’s south-east, “wore his supposed Christian and Pentecostalist credentials on his sleeve” and strategically courted the nation’s most influential Pentecostal pastors and tapped into their powerful public influence. Among other things, he repeatedly visited Israel on pilgrimage tours—once as vice-president in 2007 and then twice during his presidency—each time traveling with an entourage of high-profile officials and pastors. In 2014, months before the elections that he eventually lost, he visited Israel accompanied by Bishop David Oyedepo, the founder of one of Africa’s largest Pentecostal movements, Winners’ Chapel.

As part of Jonathan’s branding of himself as Nigeria’s Pentecostal president, pilgrimage tours doubled as friendly formal visits and relations with Israel improved. To Israel’s benefit, Nigeria was a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2014‒2015. In December 2014, when the council voted on a resolution calling for Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Palestinian Territories within three years, Nigeria (with Rwanda) abstained, though reportedly only after a last-minute personal phone call from Netanyahu to Jonathan. The abstention surprised many observers and allowed the US to avoid using its veto power.

A similar manifestation of the politics of blessings can be identified in Ghana. Though an Israeli embassy was only opened in Accra in 2011, ties between Israeli businesses and Ghanaian Evangelicals had developed earlier. Since its re-establishment, the Israeli embassy openly supported the activities of the local branch of the Africa‒Israel Initiative, hosted its leaders at the ambassador’s residency, participated in their religious conferences and in recent years even organized its own prayer events. A regular attendee of the Israeli embassy’s events is Archbishop Nicolas Duncan-Williams, the founder of the Christian Action Faith Ministries and one of the most influential religious figures in Africa.

As faith-based organizations increasingly extend their spiritual and material influence into spheres that are commonly perceived as “secular”—electoral politics, business, education, popular culture—their impact on Israel’s standing is multi-layered. “Our main objective as an embassy of the State of Israel is to strengthen the ties between Israel and Ghana. And we do this on three levels: … government-to-government … business-to-business … and people-to-people,” Shani Cooper-Zubida, Israel’s ambassador to Ghana, explained. “These churches are integrated in all three fields.” Not only do they influence the media, public opinion, and governments, but they are also important economic actors. Indeed, Archbishop Duncan-Williams is also the “Patron” of the Ghana‒Israel Business Chamber, inaugurated in 2016.

Ghana, Nigeria, and Uganda are not the only examples of such dynamics. The more public life and politics take an explicitly Pentecostal tone, across Africa, the more frequent such engagements become. Under the leadership of Lazarus Chakwera, an Evangelical Christian and former pastor, Malawi recently announced its intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem. In March 2020, Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, addressing the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC and his “Evangelical Christian brothers and sisters” in Washington, promised to open an embassy to Israel with an economic section in Jerusalem as well. “I want to build strong connections with Israel and an alliance in which my country will be a blessing for the nation of Israel, in accordance with the promise of the Almighty God,” Tshisekedi explained, citing Genesis 12:3.

In South Africa, meanwhile, Israel and the local South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) have long partnered with a host of born-again groups as well as the older Zion Christian Church (ZCC) to counter the pro-Palestinian stance of political leaders and curb popular support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. “Help us push back this scourge and this obsession that has captured the ruling party,” SAZF chair Ben Swartz passionately pleaded with the attendees of a 2018 pro-Israel conference organized in Johannesburg in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs. “For we do not wish to bring upon us the curse associated with these actions. We wish to bring upon South Africa the blessings that South Africa so rightfully deserves.”

It is important to see these discourses and dynamics within a broader context. From Ghana, through Nigeria, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, and all the way to Ethiopia, the rise of born-again Christianity in recent decades has transformed not only Africa’s religious landscape but also its politics. The aesthetics, truth claims, and practices associated with this faith are altering the very nature of citizenship, statehood, political action, and public life in many parts of the continent. The embracing of Christian Zionist theologies and the impact of these theologies on Israel’s standing in Africa are only some of the secondary consequences of this process, but they testify well for the anxieties and hopes that underly it, the multiple transnational actors and forces that shape its course, and its potential implications.

Israel and its supporters around the world are clearly grateful for these developments. For now, the Evangelical politics of blessings help legitimize apartheid and further suppress calls for accountability, justice, and democratization in Israel-Palestine. But the rise of born-again Christianity is ultimately entangled in much wider epistemological crises and political trends, which might be acutely felt in Africa but are hardly limited to it. Critics who hope to meaningfully intervene in the conversation will need to appreciate, at the very least, not only the changing circumstances, but also the new ways of knowing, speaking, and acting that are commanded by the Spirit.

Further Reading