Two Sudanese refugees who trekked to Israel from Egypt took center-stage at a Christian conference in Jerusalem on Sunday that sought to focus on the plight of women worldwide based on shared Judeo-Christian values.
The two-day conference, which is being sponsored by the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus and whose theme is "I am my Sister's Keeper," is meant to promote unity between Israel and the largely supportive evangelical Christian community around the world.
The event got underway as scheduled Sunday despite a controversial decision by a Chief Rabbinate subcommittee to ban Jewish participation at the conference.
"It is our duty to plead the cause of every woman whenever she is being demeaned, mistreated, abused, misused sexually and not honored as she was created to be," reads a declaration that is being signed by the 250 Christian women participants of the event.
The two women, E., 40, and I., 26, recounted how they made their way to Israel after living conditions for them as refugees in Egypt, where they had fled to from Sudan, became unbearable.
The women both noted how Egyptian security officials violently dispersed a nonviolent gathering of Sudanese refugees in December 2005, indiscriminately killing civilians.
"The UN office in Egypt did not want to help us, and I heard about Israel and decided to come," E. said in her address before breaking down in tears.
Together with her three young children, she was caught by Egyptian police while trying to cross the border into Israel and was incarcerated for 15 days.
After her release, she was determined to try again, and snuck into Israel with her young family last October. Today, she is living at a shelter for battered women run by a private Israeli non-profit organization in the Western Galilee, although she is still separated from the rest of her family.
The shelter houses both Muslim and Christian women who have fled Islamic extremists in Sudan.
Approximately 450 Sudanese refugees are in Israel seeking asylum, said Anat Ben-Dor, who founded the Refugee Rights Clinic, which provides free legal aid to dozens of asylum seekers.
The refugees are living in Israel in legal limbo, she said, because Israel had originally defined them as enemy nationals.
Following public pressure, 250 of the Sudanese refugees have since been released from Israeli jails, while about 150 of them are still incarcerated, Ben-Dor added.
"We want to be free and legal," I. said, embracing her baby boy, Jeremiah, who was born in Israel.
Meanwhile, in a related development, the former head of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Sunday, urging him to let the remainder of the imprisoned Sudanese refugees be housed at kibbutzim throughout Israel.
"As Jewish residents living in the Jewish State, we cannot be indifferent to war refugees who are fleeing for their life from acts of genocide perpetrated by the Sudanese government," Prof. Amnon Rubinstein wrote.
The Christian conference was praised by US First Lady Laura Bush.
"Your focus on shared values not only helps you further your mission of strengthening women but also helps promote peace and tolerance," Bush wrote in a letter.
The increasingly influential parliamentary lobby, which is currently made up of 12 Knesset members from seven political parties across the political spectrum, has come to epitomize Israel's newfound interest in garnering the support of the Christian world in the 21st century, especially the largely pro-Israel evangelical Christian community, at a time when radical Islam is on the rise. The conference got underway as planned despite the ban by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel due to concern that some of the organizations participating in the event were active in missionary work.
"We are in a process that started 2,000 years ago with the birth of Christ," said Rebecca J. Brimmer, president of the Jerusalem-based evangelical organization Bridges for Peace.
"We love Israel and the Jewish people unconditionally, and now we are getting our chance to prove it," she concluded.
The issue underscored the delicate balancing act evangelical Christian supporters of Israel face when dealing with the Jewish State, which bans proselytizing, and their fundamental belief that the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was foretold in the Scriptures and heralds the return of the messiah.