US evangelicals sail to Israel for solidarity visit, get caught up in bureaucracy upon landing in port

By Associated Press

After 35 days at sea, a group of American evangelicals traveling on a creaky World War II-era cargo ship landed in Israel on a solidarity mission only to run aground in red tape, with long delays in unloading their cargo of clothes, toys, and medical supplies.

Still, the crew was unfazed Thursday, keeping a positive attitude in a demonstration of the growing alliance between evangelical Christians and the Jewish state.

“The Bible says, ‘Who blesses Israel will be blessed,” said Don Tipton, the group’s leader. “We believe that.”

The Spirit of Grace steamed into the Israeli port of Ashdod in early October from Louisiana, flying an American flag and a huge banner reading ‘Jehovah’ in Hebrew letters.

Three weeks later, the ship is still docked, its 900-ton load of goods bound for local charities stuck on board as the gears of Israeli bureaucracy slowly turn.

Staying positive through faith

The evangelicals are treating the delay the same way they sailed their weather-beaten cargo ship through three fierce storms in the Atlantic Ocean: with a cheerful faith that their mission is God’s will.

“It’s taken a bit longer than we expected, but it’s given us more time to tour the country, and we’re having a great time,” said Sandra Tipton, Don Tipton’s wife.

Julio Lieberman, the group’s Israeli shipping agent, said the delay was due to paperwork the government requires for charitable donations from abroad. “It’s taken far too long, but it should be sorted out in a few days,” he said.

Yigal Ben-Zikry, a spokesman for the Ashdod port, said workers could unload the ship “in half a day” as soon as government approval comes through.

The Spirit of Grace – formerly the USS Pembina, a 62-year-old Navy ship that saw action in World War II – is operated by a foundation run by the Tiptons, born-again Christians originally from Beverly Hills, CA.

The group owns four other ships, as well as landing craft and a helicopter, all based at a facility dubbed Port Mercy in Lake Charles, LA.

Like the Spirit of Grace, the vessels are staffed entirely by volunteers and used to deliver supplies donated by Christians to disaster-struck countries around the world.

But the mission to Israel is different.

Love as well as aid

“This is not aid, it’s an expression of friendship and love,” Don Tipton said. The members of his crew, like many other evangelical Christians, see supporting Israel as a divine commandment. They were further spurred by this summer’s war against Hizbullah in Lebanon, he said.

“After the war, we saw that Lebanon was getting lots of aid and friendship, and I thought, hey, they’re not the ones who just got mugged,” Tipton said. He then sped up preparations for the trip, which had been planned before fighting broke out.

The voyage reflects the growing support among American evangelicals for the Jewish state, with Christians becoming more vocal politically and more generous financially on Israel’s behalf.

One of Israel’s biggest and most accepted charities is an evangelical-funded group, the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which distributes $30 million a year to projects in Israel.

“We love and admire Israel — we tell our congressmen and senators this, and we stand behind (President) Bush,” said Tipton, 62. “We won’t let anything happen to Israel.”

The friendly feeling has generally been mutual in Israel, despite some Israeli hesitancy about the evangelicals’ religious beliefs and political agenda. The Christians support the extreme Israeli right-wing position which opposes any territorial compromises to the Palestinians.

Despite the lengthy delay, the evangelicals said they have been warmly received at this busy port, where their vintage vessel and blue-and-white “Jehovah” banner stand out among the huge cargo ships, grimy tankers and Israeli naval craft. Workers have invited them for dinner in the port’s cafeteria and the port has waived some of its usual tariffs, Tipton said.

“We had to be nice to these people,” port spokesman Yigal Ben-Zikry said. “They’re more Zionist than any Israelis I know.”