Middle East

Friends of Zion’s Christians?

Overtures by US evangelicals to Arab churches tested by Trump’s Jerusalem decision.
Friends of Zion’s Christians?
Image: Lior Mizrahi / Stringer

American evangelicals rediscovered their brethren in the Middle East in recent years. The promise of the Arab Spring, followed by the threat of ISIS. Beheadings and other martyrdoms, followed by forgiveness.

Many decided we must become better friends, and work harder for the persecuted church’s flourishing in the land of its birth.

However, President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is putting that new friendship to the test, as Middle East Christian leaders have almost unanimously rallied against the decision.

Trump’s decision would “increase hatred, conflict, violence and suffering,” said the patriarchs and heads of churches in Jerusalem in a statement in advance of his anticipated announcement.

The Coptic Orthodox Church warned of “dangerous consequences.” The head of Egypt’s Protestant community said it was “against justice” and “not helpful.”

But the strongest testimony may have come from Jordan, where the national evangelical council pleaded against “uncalculated risks” that “may well expose Christians in this region to uncontrollable dangers.”

Despite these dire cries, many conservative US evangelicals rejoiced in Trump’s announcement. Support for Israel is a longstanding mark of much of the community.

“Evangelicals in the US don’t spend enough time thinking about Arab Christians,” said Joel Rosenberg, a dual US-Israeli citizen who last month led a friendship-seeking delegation of evangelical leaders to Egypt and Jordan. Many were members of Trump’s unofficial faith advisory team.

“People who love Jesus haven’t been talking to each other. But we should.”

But talking with Arab Christians didn’t change the US talking points.

“America is finally putting American interests and the interests of our key allies first,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Policy is coming into alignment with biblical truth: Jerusalem is the eternal and indivisible capital of the Jewish state.”

Mario Bramnick of the Latino Coalition for Israel applauded. “God gave the land of Israel with Jerusalem as its undivided capital to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

And for Jim Garlow, senior pastor of Skyline Church in San Diego, “It is quite possible [this] is the single most important announcement regarding Israel by a US president since Harry Truman recognized Israel as a state.”

But the reaction from Palestinian evangelical leaders was visceral.

“Local Christians are sacrificed on the altar of imperial politics,” said Mitri Raheb, an evangelical Lutheran pastor and president of Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem. He was outraged particularly by Vice President Mike Pence’s remarks.

“His God and our God seem to have nothing in common,” he said. “He worships a warrior, not the crucified one.”

Yohanna Katanacho, academic dean of Nazareth Evangelical College, was less angry but still dismayed.

“We are confused. What do we have to do to please their evangelical God?” he asked. “Should we abandon our homes, our culture, and our history? Should we betray our nation?

“They see us as enemies of Israel, and therefore as enemies of God.”

Bob Roberts, senior pastor of Northwood Church in Texas, was in Bethlehem with Christian leaders the day reactionary riots began.

“[Palestinian Christians] felt very alone and abandoned,” he said, noting his own mixed feelings about the announcement. “American evangelicals celebrated while totally ignorant as to how the Palestinians felt.

“The arrogance and insensitivity of Western believers was inexcusable to me.”

Rosenberg recently formed the Alliance for the Peace of Jerusalem with 25 US evangelical leaders, but on final status issues he has not taken a strong stand. He is sympathetic to all arguments on timing.

Wanting to “matchmake” between Christian Zionists and Arab evangelicals, his Middle East trip aimed to encourage conversation.

“It’s never been easy, and I suspect it won’t get easier,” he said. “I know there are things that pain them, and I don’t want to bring them pain.

“But if you have a friend who implores you to do something, and you listen, what if it doesn’t change your perspective? Are you no longer friends?”

Rosenberg rejects the either-or dichotomy expressed by many, and acknowledges that end-times theology too often divides believers.

He agrees with the warnings that Trump’s decision might increase tensions, and is especially worried about Jordan. Even so, he hopes that in God’s mercy it might jumpstart a path to peace.

And while he knows that members of the delegation were impacted by their experience, deeply held beliefs—on both sides—do not change overnight.

“I’m playing the long game,” he said. “As wonderful as those meetings were, it was only a month ago. The Christian leaders I brought began to see new perspectives, but I don’t want to overstate what it has accomplished so far.

“I have to absorb the disappointments when my friends don’t see eye to eye.”

One disappointment is that Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros cancelled a coming meeting with Pence. Scheduled for later this month, the patriarch followed the lead of Egypt’s top Muslim leader.

Sources now say Pence’s trip to Israel is postponed (due to US tax reform efforts), with the Christian mayor of Bethlehem also rejecting his visit. Billed initially as an effort to support the Christians of the Middle East, many of them are keeping their distance.

Rosenberg respectfully prays these leaders would reconsider, and speak directly and candidly of their frustration to the vice president. After all, he says, it is an opportunity to engage the highest levels of American government—and Pence is a fellow Christian, who cares.

But in the US, Rosenberg also is beginning to see some fruit from the delegation visit.

In a strongly pro-Israel op-ed in the Des Moines Register, Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats sympathized with the Arab side.

“We must also recognize our calling to have compassion on all people in the region, including the Palestinians,” he wrote.

“Jesus’ love extends to all, and so must ours.”

Everyone can listen better, believes Johnnie Moore, chairman of Trump’s faith advisory board. Also a member of Rosenberg’s delegation to Egypt, he travels the world to engage local Christians (and Muslims) as a personal calling.

He promised a top Palestinian negotiator he would visit Ramallah, and recently visited Israel with a delegation of Bahraini religious leaders, helping the Muslim nation send a message of peace.

But within a relationship of friendship, one must also speak truth.

“Arab Christians need to ask themselves the degree to which their opinions are impacted by a low-grade anti-Semitism,” he said.

“These days represent a moment of truth for the Palestinians. They cannot leave the negotiating table every time something happens that they do not like.”

Despite the sound bites, Moore believes, Trump’s decision is not anti-Palestinian. But the reality of the Middle East makes believers unable to say so.

“Some Arab Christians who might desire a middle ground do not feel they can moderate their position at all,” Moore said, “because of the subtle but oppressive atmosphere in their societies.”

But in Jordan, reactions were prompted by Trump’s US evangelical support.

“Evangelicals in the West make statements,” said Imad Shehadeh, president of Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary, “but evangelicals in the East pay the price.”

A Palestinian born in Jordan, Shehadeh said US evangelical statements in support of Trump’s Jerusalem decision should have been worded more carefully.

But equally, though the Jordan Evangelical Council statement came as a great relief to the community, it could have had a different emphasis, he said. Local Muslim-Christian relations are generally positive, and it may have overstated the immediate danger.

There is wisdom in siding with countrymen, Shehadeh said, and the older generation is keen to do so, especially in public statements.

The younger generation of pastors tends to be more nuanced, having been trained in his seminary. But most people just want to stay silent, lamenting any disruption to a calm status quo.

Coming to Jordan as a guest of the king, Rosenberg requested his friend Shehadeh organize a meeting of 40 select evangelical leaders to engage with his delegation. Though it was a very positive meeting, it made some Jordanians nervous.

Any political message of solidarity must add the Christian message of grace, said Shehadeh. And without wisdom and care in both the Western and Eastern context, grace is easily lost.

“Be true to your beliefs,” he said. “Just say it differently so you don’t lose the other side.”

So, what next?

“Christian Zionist leaders are a hopeless case; the evangelicals in the pew can still be saved,” said Raheb. “I suggest that they come and see firsthand their fellow sisters and brothers in Christ suffering under Israeli occupation. This will give them a fresh insight into the Bible.”

Katanacho was also inviting, but differently.

“I disagree with many of my evangelical brothers and sisters, especially with their view on Jerusalem,” he said. “But they are my family. I will continue to seek ways to engage them.

“A relational blessing seeks to empower the other for God’s glory, even if it means suffering.”

Katanacho was honest that US evangelicals have contributed to this suffering. But grace demands he start with his own sins and lack of love.

“Love charges static people, provoking them to build new bridges,” he said, emphasizing empathy over consensus.

“From there, true love pursues justice to build a virtuous community.”

And for Rosenberg, the community of American and Arab evangelicals must humbly dialogue.

God has a purpose for modern Israel, he believes, and he knows many Arab Christians do not agree. But personal relationships do not demand you become an advocate for everything your friend believes in—no matter how important the issue.

“We as Christians have to figure out how to do this conversation right,” Rosenberg said.

“If we can’t do it as sons and daughters of the King of Kings, how can we expect the president of the United States, or anyone else, to do it better?”

January/February
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