Group considers trip to Israel mission of prayer, not politics

7 Baltimore-area women join about 250 others from Christian organization

May 14, 2002|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

When Sarafina Dahlen, 81, heard last year that the Christian women's group she belongs to was planning a trip to Israel, she knew immediately that she wanted to go.

"I just had a quickening in my spirit," said Dahlen, who was at an international event in Texas at the time. "I was supposed to go."

Dahlen is aware of the tense situation in the Middle East, with suicide bombings in Israeli cities and military activity throughout the region -- but she has never reconsidered.

"All of my friends are frightened for me, but I am not the least bit frightened," said Dahlen, a retired real estate agent who lives in Reisterstown. "I know God is going to protect us because we're doing what he wants us to do."

Dahlen shares that conviction with six other local women who left yesterday for a 10-day tour of Israel organized by Aglow International, an interdenominational Christian women's fellowship group with more than 3,000 chapters worldwide. Nearly 250 Aglow members -- mostly women from the United States -- will have an opportunity to be baptized in the Jordan River, attend a prayer service in boats on the Sea of Galilee, visit the Dead Sea and stop in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem, among other places.

"Because our Judeo-Christian roots show us the great debt of gratitude owed to the Jewish people, we feel this is the time to physically stand with the nation of Israel as they are engaged in a 54-year battle to survive as a nation," said Kay Rogers, public relations director for Aglow, based in Edmonds, Wash.

The women insist theirs is a mission of prayer, not politics, and that God loves all people. Still, Dahlen said, "I believe the Bible is the written word of God, and God says stand beside Jerusalem. ... The Palestinian people see things entirely differently ... but the Quran, unfortunately, is not the Bible."

Arthur C. Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said, "I applaud them for going to Israel. Israel feels very much alone, as the rest of the world has, in some ways, forsaken them. It is a positive mark of solidarity."

Abramson, who has taken visitors to Israel before and plans to travel there several times this year, said that outside the areas of military activity, Israel "is safer than Baltimore."

"The women should have little trouble in the areas they have chosen," said Heidi Shoup, executive director of the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine. But she questions whether they are missing an opportunity to learn about both sides of the conflict. Many Christian fundamentalist groups are supporting Israel, she said, but other Christians have been more critical.

"If everything is orchestrated from an Israeli point of view, they will come back not having seen what is going on at all," Shoup said. "A large number of people have an unrealistic view of U.S. policy" in that area, she said.

In light of recent events, some Aglow members believed that this would be an unwise time to visit the Middle East. The U.S. Department of State has warned citizens to defer travel to Israel.

Aglow will avoid the most violent areas, but the group plans to visit Jerusalem, which, like Gaza and the West Bank, the State Department has deemed extremely volatile.

Travel to the Middle East "is down substantially," said Ron Erdmann, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Commerce's office of travel and tourism industries. Factors such as the U.S. economy play a role, he said, and it is more difficult to track Americans who are going to Israel through other countries. But based on direct flights out of the United States, travel overseas declined 5 percent between 2000 and last year, and "it was five times worse for the Middle East."

Many Aglow members say that they feel compelled to go, and that they trust that God will keep them safe.

Jewel Campbell, the local group leader for the trip, said she was inspired when women from around the world attending the event in Texas last year expressed sympathy over the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. She heard about the trip to Israel at the Texas gathering and said, "I knew that I was to go. Not for a second since that point has there been a question about going.

"I really believe it's not for everyone," said Campbell, 59, of Upper Park Heights. "I believe I've been called to do this."

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