U.S. Group to Help S. Korean Christians Forge Ties With Israel

Fellowship of Christians and Jews to open office in Seoul; 40,000 Korean pilgrims visit Holy Land every year.

The man who pioneered the strategic relationship between Israel and Christian evangelists in the United States now has his sights on Asia.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president and founder of the Chicago-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, will on Thursday open a satellite office in South Korea that is expected to reach out to the country's estimated 13 million Christians.

"South Korea has a huge proportion of evangelical Christians roughly 25 percent of its population who have a love and a strong interest in Israel and the Jewish roots of Christianity," Eckstein told Haaretz in a phone interview from Seoul, the country's capital. "Our objective is to deepen those ties between Korea and Israel."

A day-long symposium and a festive dinner for 1,200 guests scheduled for Thursday, and featuring a video greeting from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will mark both the opening of the branch and the 50th anniversary of the forging of diplomatic ties between Israel and South Korea.

Some 40,000 South Korean Christian pilgrims visit Israel each year, according to the 61-year-old Eckstein, a native of Ottowa, Canada, who immigrated to Israel from Chicago in 2000. He said he expects that figure will double within two years due to his organization's outreach efforts, which include translation of books, television programs, a website, and other informational and educational materials into Korean.

The 30 year-old organization, which also has offices in Canada, Australia and Jerusalem, raises nearly all of its funds from the Christian evangelical community. Eckstein estimates that his organization, since its inception, has raised about a quarter of a billion dollars for Israel.

Approximately $80 million of the $120 million it raises each year is distributed via its Israel office to a range of education and welfare projects in 160 towns and cities throughout the country. The donations are not universally welcome as some, including ultra-Orthodox rabbis, question the religious agenda of the donors.