Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Christians around the world told Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert this week that they stand behind Israel's sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem.
A petition signed by more than 100,000 individuals as well as leaders representing more than 14 million Christians from 117 countries was presented to Olmert this week during an annual Feast of Tabernacles celebration, organized by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.
"We the undersigned, support Israel's exclusive claim to sovereignty over united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel," the petition's statement reads.
"We commend Israel for its exemplary record in guaranteeing access to the biblical sites in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, and support the continuation of Israel in this role."
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has demanded that he be given control over eastern Jerusalem as part of any permanent settlement with Israel, including the Muslim, Armenian and Christian quarters of the ancient Old City and the Temple Mount.
That would also place in PA hands the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus' burial and resurrection. Arafat has declared himself the guardian of Christian holy places, a claim rejected by the Vatican.
Braving international travel warnings and despite the current unrest, some 5,000 Christian pilgrims from around the world gathered this week in Jerusalem in a show of support for an Israel in deep crisis.
"Your presence here is a powerful statement that Israel and Yerushalayim [Jerusalem]
needs so much in these days," Olmert told them.
Referring to the petition, he told the enthusiastic crowd: "This is a statement of conviction; this is a statement of belief; this is a statement of trust in God's will that Jerusalem will remain a one, united, undivided capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
Addressing the gathering earlier, Israeli Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior said: "It is precisely when your faith is put to the test that you find out who your true friends are, who are willing to stand up and be counted.
"Your unbreakable commitment to the people of Israel, to the cause of the Jewish homeland, gives us strength to face the challenges of the hour."
Melchior filled in for Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who could not attend due to the security situation.
The Feast is, according to the Tourism Ministry, the largest single annual gathering on Israel's tourism calendar.
The largest delegation - more than 800 pilgrims - is from the United States. Only three small groups cancelled their participation because of the violence.
By contrast, as many as 50 percent of general tourist bookings to Israel were cancelled over past three weeks - a peak holiday season - because of the reports about the trouble.
"We are very proud of our pilgrims this year for coming at a difficult time for Israel," ICEJ spokesman David Parsons said. "[We want] to stand with [Israel] in this hour and be sincerely committed to the people in good times and bad."
As for the Palestinians, Parsons said the ICEJ follows the "Christian ethic to love all men. But we also have an understanding of the ingathering of the Jewish people in these days," he added, referring to a biblical promise that God would restore the scattered Jewish people back to their ancient land.
This year's participants include a delegate from Lebanon, another who was born in Iraq, a group of more than 400 pilgrims from the world's largest Muslim nation Indonesia, as well as groups from China, the First Nations of America (native Americans) - and for the first time a delegation of indigenous Inuit from Canada.
The ICEJ, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, was established in 1980 by Christians in solidarity with Israel. At the time, under a threat of an Arab oil embargo, some 23 nations withdrew their embassies from Jerusalem after Israel passed a law proclaiming the city its capital.
Each year since then, the ICEJ has hosted the Feast of Tabernacles celebration, an eight-day event including seminars and gala musical and dance presentations.
And while many Israelis are passing these holidays far away from crowds because for fear of terror attacks, thousands of these pilgrims participated as usual in the annual Succot parade on Tuesday, marching through the streets of Jerusalem in colorful national costumes and declaring their support for Israel.
Despite the media reports of terrible trouble in the region, the Christians said they were not afraid to come to Israel at this time.
"Not at all," said Rodney Shannon, who moved to Jerusalem from the U.S. two months ago with his wife to work for the ICEJ and "support the Jewish people."
Gloria Hinton from Manchester, N.Y., who, along with her husband, is a first timer at the Feast, said she was also not afraid to come. "If the gospel is good enough to live for, its good enough to die for," she said.