Tensions Mount Between Middle Eastern Christians and American Evangelicals
The denunciations by leaders of Middle Eastern Christian churches of US President Donald Trump’s announcement to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital underscore sharp differences between those denominations and the American evangelical community, which sees Vice-President Mike Pence as its champion.
Although Pence grew up in an Irish-American Roman Catholic family, he became an evangelical while in college and has been outspoken about his faith since then. Pence played a crucial role in persuading the evangelical community to back Trump for president in 2016 (Trump received 81% of the evangelical vote) despite misgivings over Trump’s personal behaviour.
Pence told a “In Defence of Christians” conference in October in Washington that the Trump administration would focus on protecting Christians in the Middle East as part of its national security priorities.
“Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” Pence said. “Across the wider Middle East, we can now see a future in many areas without a Christian faith but tonight, I came to tell you: Help is on the way.”
He said the United States would “hunt down and destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS), which has carried out atrocities against both Middle Eastern Christians and Muslims.
While such anti-ISIS rhetoric and the highlighting of the terror group’s persecution of Christians are generally welcomed by Middle Eastern Christians, other aspects of the Trump administration’s agenda are not. This includes the Jerusalem decision.
American evangelicals have a very different view of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than Middle Eastern Christian communities do. Many, if not most, evangelicals believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible. In their understanding, the second coming of Christ can only take place after all Jews have gathered in the Holy Land where they would undergo a mass conversion to Christianity before Armageddon.
These beliefs led many evangelicals to wholeheartedly favour Israel and be uncritical of its policies. They say Israel has an exclusive right to the Holy Land and have little sympathy for Palestinian rights. Thus, evangelicals were very pleased when Trump announced on December 6, with Pence standing behind him, that the United States was recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Middle Eastern Christians, who represent many Christian denominations, however, do not believe that Israel has an exclusive right to the Holy Land, especially Jerusalem, which is holy to all three monotheistic faiths — Christianity, Judaism and Islam. They generally do not take a literal interpretation of the scriptures.
Hence, they find the evangelical belief of a gathering of Jews into the Holy Land for mass conversion to Christianity to be absurd. Instead, they see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in political terms, a conflict that needs to be rectified through a political settlement.
One Palestinian Lutheran minister recently told the Washington Post: “The Bible originated in Palestine, not in the Bible Belt [of America], but people in the Bible Belt read the Bible in a way that makes our lives difficult.”
The fears of Middle Eastern Christians are not only that Islamist extremists such as ISIS but also more mainstream Islamist groups will use the evangelicals’ uncritical support of Israel to tarnish the image of Christians as a whole.
Over the past several decades in the Middle East, because of wars, terrorism and instability, many Christians have left the region, having been targeted or fearing for their future. At least two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have left Iraq in the post-2003 period. Christians who remain in the region do not want the evangelicals, and by extension, the Trump administration, making their situation worse.
Hence, not only have such Christians denounced the Trump position on Jerusalem, they have stated loudly that they would not meet with Pence when he visits the region. Coptic Pope Tawadros II, for example, said the US decision on Jerusalem came “without the consideration for the feelings of millions of Arab people.”
The White House announced on December 18 that Pence’s trip to the Middle East had been postponed to the week of January 14, ostensibly because his presence was required in Washington for the passage of a tax bill.
In reality, the schedule change was because so many political leaders such as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Christian and Muslim leaders in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Middle East said they would not meet with him. The White House may be hoping a delay will allow feelings to cool down.
That is wishful thinking. That Trump is indicating he wants to punish all the countries on the UN Security Council who voted on December 18 for a resolution rejecting the US decision on Jerusalem does not bode well for a cooling of tensions. It does nothing to support Pence’s claim that the administration is giving priority to protecting Christians. In fact, it has put them more in jeopardy. As the saying goes, with friends like these — evangelicals and Trump officials — who needs enemies?
Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.
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