The heads of three major evangelical Christian organizations based in Jerusalem on Tuesday criticized the proposed division of Jerusalem as part of a peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, saying such a move would severely restrict freedom of worship in the holy city.
"We view any attempt to divide the city as a tragic wedge that is unacceptable," said Rev. Malcolm Hedding, the executive director of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem.
The most prominent of several Jerusalem-based evangelical organizations, the group was founded in the city over a quarter-century ago in solidarity with Israel on the principle of an undivided Jerusalem as the eternal capital of the Jewish people. "The sanctity of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State is something very sacred which has both historical and religious associations for the Jewish people going back thousands of years," Hedding said. "We cannot deal so trivially with an issue so deep to the Jewish people."
Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Vice Premier Haim Ramon have suggested the transfer of Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority. Evangelicals oppose such ideas as contradictory to the biblical promise of the Holy Land to the Jewish people.
Palestinians claim all of east Jerusalem, including the holy sites, as the capital of their future state, while a majority of Israelis opposes any division of Jerusalem, according to public opinion polls.
Other evangelical leaders in the Holy Land expressed concern that freedom of worship would be curtailed and restricted if the Jerusalem holy sites in the Old City were to fall under Palestinian control.
"This would be a real step backward and would make for rough days ahead," said Rebecca Brimmer, executive director of Bridges for Peace.
She noted that when east Jerusalem was under Jordanian occupation when the city was divided between 1948 and 1967, Christians were forced to live in an estranged lifestyle of dhimmihood, in contrast to the freedom of worship under Israel.
"I fear that it would be a very difficult time for Christians," she said, citing the ongoing persecutions of the tiny Christian minority in the Palestinian-run Gaza Strip, where about 3,200 Christians, most of them Greek Orthodox, live among 1.4 million Muslims.
"It would be a terrible mistake for Israel even to allow this issue to be brought up for discussion since the ramifications would be terrible for both Christians and Jews living in Israel," said Ray Sanders, executive director of the Jerusalem-based Christian Friends of Israel.
Sanders said Muslim claims to Jewish holy sites including the Western Wall were preposterous, and he voiced dismay over the Israeli government's willingness to overlook these remarks.
"What bothers me is that Israel does not take a strong stance against these allegations," he said.
The rare criticism from some of the country's staunchest political supporters comes amid burgeoning relations between Israel and the predominantly pro-Israel evangelical Christian community around the world.
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