Jerusalem: Trump declaration sparks Baptists' reactions

JERUSALEM (BP) -- As violence continued in the Middle East after President Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, Southern Baptists expressed a range of views on the topic.

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Former Southern Baptist Convention Presidents Ronnie Floyd and Jack Graham were among those to celebrate Trump's Dec. 6 proclamation on Jerusalem, which included a promise to move the U.S. embassy there. Jamal Bishara, an Arab Israeli who served on the Multiethnic Advisory Council appointed in 2014 by SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page, called the Trump administration's move "another slap in the face to Palestinians."

The Washington Post reported today (Dec. 8) at least one Palestinian had been killed in the West Bank and dozens were injured as Palestinian protestors clashed with Israeli troops. At least 245 people have been injured during clashes in the West Bank and in Jerusalem.

The United Nations Security Council held a special session Dec. 8 to discuss the Trump administration's actions regarding Israel.

Bruce Mills, an American retiree living in Israel, told Baptist Press "the question uppermost in many peoples' minds" there is how the current upheaval will affect the flow of religious tourists, the region's No. 1 industry. Mills also said the move of embassies to Jerusalem "almost seems like some sort of prophetic fulfilment."

Floyd, pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas, said in a press release he is "thoroughly pleased President Trump has taken this action when it comes to our ally Israel," adding the Jewish people's "return to the Promised Land has been mixed with sorrow, as they've had to wait on the world to once again recognize what's rightfully theirs: Jerusalem."

"By recognizing that Jerusalem is Israel's unquestionable capital and promising the subsequent move of the U.S. embassy, President Trump has incurred blessing on America," said Floyd, who also serves as president of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, "for Scripture says God blesses those who bless Israel."

Israel long has claimed Jerusalem as its capital, with modern Israeli governments varying in their willingness to let Palestinians control portions of the city. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as their capital.

Some observers have said moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem may undermine prospects for peace in the region and be understood as a declaration of Israel's sovereignty over the entire city -- though Trump said Dec. 6 he was not taking a position on "the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem."

The U.S. embassy has been in Tel Aviv for more than 50 years. In 1995, the U.S. Congress adopted legislation requiring the embassy to relocate to Jerusalem by 1999. However, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama all exercised a provision in the law allowing them to suspend the relocation. Trump exercised the same provision in June before announcing the embassy's relocation.

Graham, pastor of the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church, called Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. embassy "the best news to come out of the Middle East in decades."

"As a Christian, I'm grateful America is playing a decisive role in the story of God's chosen people, and I'm very glad President Trump is displaying the courage to fulfill a promise to support Israel and its biblical role among the nations," Graham said in a statement.

Among other Southern Baptists to release statements supporting Trump's announcement were Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas; David Jeremiah, pastor of Shadow Mountain Community Church in El Cajon, Calif.; Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, Calif.; and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

Bishara, pastor of First Arabic Baptist Church in Phoenix and a dual Israeli-American citizen, told BP Jerusalem "maybe" should be the capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state. But he lamented what he perceives as "the tunnel vision and the prejudice of the Western world against Palestinians."

Such prejudice may be "church-influenced based on wrong biblical interpretation of Scriptures," Bishara said, "causing mistreatment of people as was done to blacks in the U.S."

Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy and general counsel at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, wrote in an article posted at ERLC.com that "many Arab Christians are concerned about this move."

"Arab Christians, wherever they live around the world, are religious minorities," Wussow wrote. "Sectarian tensions are already high. The Arab Christians are especially vulnerable to and sensitive about attacks on churches and their communities by extremist elements. Several Middle Eastern Christian leaders in Jerusalem, Jordan, and elsewhere sent letters to President Trump asking for a delay or for caution in making this move."

Retired hospital executive Rich Hastings, a pro-Israel advocate in Kansas City, Mo., told BP he hopes "this Jerusalem controversy itself may cause our churches to emphasize the biblical importance of Israel in prophecy and to our faith."

"The President's decision may not be liked and certainly will not bring peace," Hastings, who has led numerous tours and trade missions to Israel, said in written comments. "But dialogue about Israel and the Prince of Peace is a good thing. I look forward to the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy that when the Messiah returns, we will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) in Jerusalem."

A 2016 SBC resolution "on prayer and support for Israel" did not take a position on Jerusalem's geopolitical status but expressed messengers' promise "to pray for God's peace to rule in Jerusalem and for the salvation of Israel, for the Gospel is 'God's power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew' (Romans 1:16)."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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