TAIPEI CITY, Taiwan – Just around the corner from Taipei’s iconic 101 building, the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl, stares down passersby. It’s a strange sight in a city thousands of miles from Israel, but it marks Zionism’s leap from Taiwan’s religious fringes to a wider audience.
It’s actually a mural at Wave, a restaurant, bar and event space aimed at sharing Israeli culture, which is set to open in July. It is the brainchild not of Israeli immigrants but two Taiwanese citizens who love Israel.
“In Taiwan, many people just don’t know anything about Israel ... or some who are Christian, they know about Israel as the holy land. But a very special part of Israel is that it’s very free, very chill. So that’s what we want to bring to Taiwan,” says Ann Chen, Wave’s manager.
Supported by the Israeli Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei, Israel’s de facto embassy, Chen has built a career around loving Israel: She helps the cultural office edit videos and host events, gives lectures about Israel, and sells her combination Hebrew-Chinese designs.
During Israel’s latest round of fighting with Hamas, which left 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, Chen took to social media and shared pro-Israel infographics and news stories in Mandarin that received hundreds of shares.
Heavy Zionist leanings
Chen’s first visit to Israel was in 2016, at the recommendation of a Christian acting teacher. “I think everything is still based on my religion. But, because now I’m promoting Israel, I think I have to go inside the community and then I can introduce this country, this culture, to Taiwanese people,” she says.
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Though her business goals are not religious, Chen’s success represents a growing trend of pro-Israel sentiment among Taiwan’s Christians.
On a small island of some 24 million people, Christians represent only 4 to 5 percent of all Taiwanese, many of whom are indigenous. Of those, experts estimate more than half are actively pro-Israel, and that Christian Zionist influence is growing within Taiwan’s churches.
Taiwan’s Christians buy out tables at Jewish holiday events hosted by the local Jewish community of less than 1,000 people. Churches with heavy Zionist leanings, like Bread of Life – a megachurch with 52 congregations across the island that is known for its anti-LGBT activism – observe Jewish holidays and customs in growing numbers. Taiwan’s only Holocaust museum is located inside a church.
“My colleagues from Hong Kong are so surprised to see that most of the Taiwanese churches are supportive to Israel,” says Tseng Tsong-sheng, an Old Testament scholar at the Taiwan Theological College and Seminary.
Christian Zionism is the belief that the “return” of Jews to Israel and establishment of the Jewish state was prophesied in the Bible; some believe the conversion of Jews to Christianity is a means of fulfilling the prophecy and bringing upon the second coming of Jesus.
The movement is popular among America’s evangelicals, who celebrated the Trump administration’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel has leaned into the movement’s support, despite the antisemitic tendencies of some of its proponents. Christian Zionism leaves little room for criticism of the Israeli military occupation, settlements and alleged human rights abuses.
“They regard Jews as instrumentalized. And that means they put the Jews in the box, or structure of the Christian Zionist ideas of history,” says Tseng. He credits the growth of Christian Zionism in Taiwan to American influence and the growth of organizations like the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem.
Christians who support Israel here are not limited to evangelicals, but also include Lutherans and multidenominational Protestant churches. The Bread of Life Church, which Tseng says has become its own denomination within Taiwan, is heavily influenced by the Charismatic movement (in which historically mainstream Christian congregations adopt beliefs and practices similar to Pentecostalism).
“Sometimes we hear some voices mentioning that maybe we should also take care of Palestinian people, but we always explain that we received a calling from God to bless Israel. We just respond to God’s calling,” says Joseph Chou, a board member and former chairman of ICEJ’s Taiwan satellite, which he and his wife, Deborah Yung, opened in 2004.
Omer Caspi, Israel’s representative at the Economic and Cultural Office, has said connecting with Christian groups in Taiwan is an important part of outreach.
In a separate interview via email, Caspi wrote that his office “cooperates with different people, organizations and groups in Taiwan, among them also Christians. As part of our work, we also support interfaith and people-to-people activities that enhance the mutual understanding of each other.”
When Chen explains Israel to her Taiwanese friends, she often starts with similarities between the two countries and their peoples. “They’re like brothers,” she says.
According to Roie Yellinek, a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Ramat Gan, both are “islands” of sorts. “The Taiwanese people see Israel as a close ally because of the similarity between the two nations. Because the people in Taiwan and the people in Israel feel that there is a great power – in [Taiwan’s] case it’s China, in Israel’s case it’s the Arab world, that can start a war in a second ... and we need to find ways to defend ourselves,” he says.
Neither state formally recognizes one another in order to maintain relationships with other countries, but both collaborate and greatly benefit from one another.
The relationship has also meant easier access to Chinese-speaking Christians who directly and indirectly support Israel, a difficult feat in China due to the political sensitivity of Western evangelism. ICEJ, which fundraises for Israel, and Israel’s official fundraising body Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal, both have offices in Taiwan but not China.
“In China, the discourse [regarding Israel] is only about the economy: ‘We don’t want anything else from them,’” Yellinek says.
The 1990s were marked by an upsurge in trade, cultural exchanges and tourism between Israel and Taiwan. Until then, Christian Zionism was unpopular, observes ICEJ’s Chou, who first visited Israel in 1995. “I remember, at that time, not many people in Taiwan were going to Israel. I went there alone,” he says.
Now, pro-Israel fundraisers raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in Taiwan toward aliyah and other initiatives. ICEJ Taiwan says it raised $240,000 in 2020, and expects to surpass that amount this year. Since 2004, it has sent thousands of weekly emails containing Mandarin-language news from Israel and prayers for the Jewish state, encouraged Christian tours to Israel, brought Messianic preachers to Taiwan, and met with government officials to urge stronger support for the Jewish state.
“Even though we didn’t preach to some Jewish people, we did see – because of what we do to bless them – their hearts start to open to Christians, especially to amend the broken relationship for a long time in history, and also they start to open their heart to Jesus, the Messiah,” ICEJ’s Yung says.
Like other countries in East Asia, positive stereotypes of Jews, such as being smart and good at business, are common in Taiwan.
“For Taiwanese, we don’t have these antisemitic ideas,” Yung says. “If you’re a Christian you read the Bible, from Genesis to the covenants of Abraham and then to King David, to all the prophets, even to the New Testament – they are all Jewish people.”
In Mandarin, Jews are a minzu, a people or nation, often perceived as unified with Israel as their home state. Tseng says this is what differentiates Taiwan’s brand of Christian Zionism from that in other countries. “They obey the Jewish festivals and traditions, and they support Israel, without hesitation,” he says. During the Gaza flare-up last month, some church leaders “see that now the Israelis’ policies are questionable. So there was a change this time. But the Christian churches say: ‘OK, we pray for Israel and pray for Palestinians, but we still support Israel.’”
Chen used to be a regular member of the Bread of Life Church, but hasn’t attended since COVID-19 began. She says she wouldn’t want to belong to a church that doesn’t support Israel, but has no intentions of trying to share the gospel with Jews.
“I don’t want to change Jews, their religion or their thoughts. I just want to be friendly,” she says. “Israel is very connected to the Bible, and I think if you want to know the religion, you have to know about Israel. But I don’t want to change anything.”
Jordyn Haime is an American Fulbright student fellow based in Taiwan.