On a damp, blustery winter day, 14 Americans filed into the Shipude Hagefen restaurant for a Middle Eastern meal of hummus and tahini, taboule and lamb kabobs.

This group of Protestant pastors and their spouses, congregational leaders and Catholic priests and nuns from New England and Pennsylvania were luncheon guests of Israel's Ministry of Tourism.Officials hope that after visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - said to be the site of Jesus' burial - touring the Mount of Olives, and walking the Via Dolorosa, the group will go home and tout Israel to their congregations.

David Ben-Zion, director of the ministry's North American and Overseas Special Operations, knows just what to say. A Jew born in India, Ben-Zion attended a Christian Bible college in Missouri.

Who's better equipped to handle tourists than "people who have been in this business for 3,000 years?" Ben-Zion asked. "Open to the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13. Moses was the first tour operator! He sent the first 12 tourists! Joshua and Caleb came back and announced, `This is the land of milk and honey.' "

He got a huge laugh, then confronted the unavoidable issue.

"Some of your friends thought you were crazy to come here to the Holy Land, to Israel?" he asked, as chuckles rippled across the table. "You see what is happening here. People are walking around. It's almost 100 percent normal."

Later he confided: "Jews are more afraid to come," and so they don't, which many Israelis consider a betrayal. Christians, on the other hand, "feel that the Lord will protect them."

Half of the country's visitors are Christian with Japanese and Korean Evangelicals the fastest-growing segment.

"We are expecting four million Christians to come for the millennium," Ben-Zion said. "Yes, we've got a major problem here. It's not safety; it's image. When do you see Israel on TV? When there's a bullet shot in Lebanon or Gaza. Who goes there?"

Increasingly, travelers combine excursions to Israel, Egypt and Jordan, so when "something happens elsewhere, it affects Israel," he said. "In America, they are bad in geography, and they think it is the same thing."

Sometimes geographic confusion proves beneficial. Following the massacre at Luxor, tour groups canceled side trips to Egypt and spent more time in Israel, he said.

The key to "selling" Israel is calming fears about safety.

"Terrorists are a problem," Golan conceded. "You cannot avoid that. But you see what's happened in Oklahoma?"

Even after the Ben Yehuda Street bombing in Jerusalem last September, tours "went if they had already paid. With the others who were still deciding, we worked to increase their desire."

With the clergy group, Ben-Zion moved smoothly from security issues to the country's attractions.

"Whatever you need is here, in this small country of 10,000 square miles," he said. "You want history? This is the land of the Bible! . . . You can see the Bible come alive."

But one of the ministers wanted to know about something admittedly secular but important to tourists: golf.

Israel finally will get a second golf course, Ben-Zion said. Golf courses require huge amounts of water, a scarce resource. Ceasarea has one; Ashkelon, a port city south of Tel Aviv, will get the second course along with four hotels.

Becky Williard, a protestant deacon from Steep Falls, Maine, hadn't accompanied her husband, John, on two previous visits because of "all the media, the shooting and terrorism. But . . . I'd love to come back."

"I speak differently to Jews," Ben-Zion said later. "I tell them: `You donate lots of dollars. You are great supporters of Israel. But the best way you can help is to come and visit. More than 100,000 families make their living off tourism. For every dollar we invest in agriculture, we get $4 in return. Every dollar we invest in tourism, we get $17 in return.

"By all means, criticize, but first, come.' "