Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades. Why are so many American Christians more concerned about Israel, and Jerusalem in particular, than they are the crushing waves of persecution that have hit the ancient Eastern churches?

So what is at the heart of this drama, according to the Post story?

The answer, of course, is "American politics." In the Trump era, that is code language for "white evangelical Protestants." Thus, readers are told, concerning the embassy announcement:

While the news has been badly received among Christian communities in the Middle East, the move was in part a political gesture aimed at Christians: white evangelical voters, who backed Trump overwhelmingly in last year’s presidential election. American evangelical Christians -- who believe that the right of the Jews to Jerusalem is enshrined in the Bible and that their presence there will usher in Judgment Day -- were a powerful lobbying force behind the decision. 
Palestinian Christians complain that Christian evangelicals’ support of Israel doesn’t take into consideration the rights and needs of Christians in the homeland of their religion.
“This is where it all started,” said the Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor in Bethlehem. “The Bible originated in Palestine, not in the Bible Belt, but people in the Bible Belt read the Bible in a way that really makes our lives difficult.”

So what is the journalism issue here?

See if this sound familiar. Once again, we have the complex world of evangelical Protestantism in America jammed down into one box, in this case a "Left Behind" theological box.

Now, I am well aware that this is a large and powerful box of evangelicals. Any story on this topic would have to mention the role that Jerusalem plays for evangelicals who -- whether they realize it or not -- buy into the (strangely modernist) world of Premillennial Dispensationalism interpretation of the Bible.

The problem, once again, is that this is only one evangelical way of viewing the Bible, the End Times and, yes, Jerusalem.

So it is true, as the Post story notes, that leaders of the ancient churches -- East and West -- reject this brand of apocalyptic theology. The same is true for the world of liberal Christianity, for different reasons. Thus, readers are told:

The White House recognition of Jerusalem went ahead despite warnings from Pope Francis; the archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the Church of England and is a leader for Anglicans worldwide; and the heads and patriarchs of various churches in Jerusalem. Egypt’s Coptic Church said the decision had disregarded the feelings of millions of Arabs. ...
The White House has repeatedly said it is seeking to better protect Christians in the Middle East. Christians are estimated to make up less than 2 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, a shrinking but influential minority. Most are Greek Orthodox, but they also include Catholics, Lutherans and Anglicans. The evangelical community is a tiny minority. 

(By the way, a note for those who want to dig deeper. It is true that most of the Orthodox in Israel and on the West Bank are often called "Greek" Orthodox. It's complicated to explain why, but it's crucial for journalists to realize that we are talking about churches full of Palestinians, Syrians and other people who are Arabs, not Greeks. It would be better to refer to the "Eastern Orthodox" churches in the region.)

The Post team is accurate when it says that evangelicals are a small minority in the Middle East.

However, that does not mean they do not exist and that it is wise to ignore them. For starters, many evangelical missionaries in the region (and the churches and denominations that sponsor them) have done their homework on the lives of Arabs in the region and identify closely with them. Thus, there are lots of evangelicals who (a) do not buy the Christian Zionism playbook and (b) listen carefully to what Arab Christians have to say on issues like, well, Jerusalem.

I know that it would chip away at the mainstream press image of a monolithic evangelical army of bad guys (see the video at the top of this post), but the Washington Post report really needed to say something like this: "... white evangelical voters, who overwhelmingly voted for Trump in last year’s presidential election." And then, "American evangelical Christians -- significant numbers of whom believe that the right of the Jews to Jerusalem is enshrined in the Bible and that their presence there will usher in Judgment Day. ..."

Then international-desk editors could pay a visit to the newspaper's religion desk team, where it would be easy to obtain contact information to reach evangelicals with other End Times viewpoints, perhaps even missionary leaders with ties to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, etc.

By the way, there is another interesting angle to this story. As is often the case, these days, it helps to keep an eye on Russia -- where the government has to take the health and survival of the Orthodox churches of the Middle East quite seriously.

Thus, this past spring, Haaretz covered this interesting development:

In an unusual move, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement ... in which it said, for the first time, that in the event of a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, West Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel.
The statement represents a modest shift in the Russian attitude toward the peace process. Previously, the Russians had stressed that East Jerusalem should be the capital of the Palestinian state in any future arrangement, without making any reference to the status of West Jerusalem. Russia does not officially recognize West Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and its embassy is located in Tel Aviv.

What do Arab Orthodox leaders, including those poised to protest Pence's visit, think of that stance?

Just asking.

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