What I told a recent State Department conference

What’s the state of religious freedom in Israel and the Arab world?

August 14, 2019 23:34
AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall

AN ARAB woman walks past a Jewish couple at the Western Wall. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

In an age of horrific attacks against Jews, Christians, Muslims and those of other religions, the words of Proverbs must be our mission.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held an important conference in Washington designed to make the advancement of religious freedom a top global priority and give voice to many who feel voiceless.

More than 1,000 religious and civic leaders, victims of religious persecution, as well as foreign ministers and other dignitaries from more than 100 countries, attended.

I was honored to deliver one of the keynote addresses, titled “Advancing Religious Freedom in the Middle East: An Israeli Evangelical’s Perspective.” I focused on the state of religious freedom in Israel and the Arab Muslim world. Here are excerpts from my remarks

The state of religious freedom in Israel

The State of Israel is certainly not perfect, yet it is a modern miracle.

• Born out of the ashes of the Holocaust

• The fulfillment of ancient prophecies

• Thriving, despite repeated wars and enemies Hell-bent on our annihilation

• A booming economy

• And a robust and raucous democracy – the only in our region

What’s more, Israel is a magnificent model of religious freedom. It is a safe harbor for Jews from all over the world, regardless of how religious or secular they may be. It is also the safest, freest country in the Mideast for people of all faiths, and no faith.

• 75% of Israel’s 9 million citizens are Jews.

• 20% are Muslims or Druze – full citizens, with equal rights, absolutely free to attend mosque, read the Koran and raise their children in their faith.

• Only about 2% are Christians, including Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals and Messianic Jews – we are a small minority, but we are absolutely free to practice our faith and to preach it.

Do religious minorities in Israel face a variety of governmental and societal challenges? We do, including an inordinate and sometimes unhealthy control by one faith stream – ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Judaism, a relatively small minority – over political decisions affecting the lives of everyone else. This includes rules governing marriage, divorce, burial, immigration and much else.

The haredim have every right to advance their policy objectives, of course. But the growing mass movement of other Israelis to balance haredi influence is also legitimate.

There is much that Israel’s government can and should do to make reforms and improve the quality of life for religious minorities, and the sooner the better.

That said, regardless of what outsiders hear from critics, Muslims and Christians do not face government persecution, and there is certainly no apartheid.

• Muslim, Druze and Christian Arabs have served as Members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, since the founding of the modern state – 81, in fact – including 12 at this very moment.

• Muslims, Druze and Christians serve with distinction in Israel’s military, police, academia, media and businesses – just last month, a brilliant Israeli Arab Muslim was named chairman of one of Israel’s largest banks.

• Arab Christians and Muslims even serve as justices on the Israeli Supreme Court.

Challenges remain, including our wrenching conflict with the Palestinians, for which we must continue to work and pray for peace and reconciliation. Still, I am deeply encouraged by the state of religious freedom in Israel today.

The state of religious freedom in the Arab world

I’m also pleased to report that something very hopeful is happening with regard to the safety and freedom of Christians in the Arab world.

Not long ago, radical Islamists were beheading Christians in Libya, burning down churches in Egypt, waging genocide against Christians in Iraq and Syria, and vowing to exterminate Christianity through our region.

Today, the situation is vastly different.

• Arab Muslim leaders have been valiantly fighting to defeat the forces of Radical Islamism.

• Tens of millions of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis have been liberated from the forces of barbarism and savagery.

• A growing number of Arab governments are waging an ideological and theological battle against radical Islamists in their mosques, schools and on social media, and are training a new generation of clerics to preach moderation and mutual respect.

• Some Arab Muslim kings, crown princes, presidents and prime ministers are calling for a new era of peaceful coexistence with Christians and Jews.

• Some are even inviting Christians to meet with them to improve religious freedom and the quality of life for Christians in their countries.

Such trends are not receiving nearly enough attention, but they should for they are real and historic.

Over the last two decades, I have traveled extensively across North Africa and the Middle East, from Morocco to Afghanistan, building friendships with Muslims and Christians.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to lead five delegations of American Evangelical leaders to Sunni Arab countries – twice to Egypt, and once each to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – meeting with Christian leaders, but also with Muslim leaders at the highest-levels.

In Amman, King Abdullah II – winner of last year’s Templeton Prize for his extraordinary history of promoting inter-faith dialogue and religious freedom – invited our delegation to a wonderful working lunch at the palace.

In Cairo, we spent almost three hours in private talks with President El-Sisi – the first time an Egyptian President had ever met with an Evangelical Delegation.

In Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed spent two hours with our delegation in his home – also the first time the leaders of the United Arab Emirates had ever invited Evangelicals for such meetings.

In Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also spent two full hours with us – and we were told this was the first time Evangelical leaders had been invited to meet with senior members of the Saudi Royal Family in 300 years.

In each country, we made it clear we were not coming for a photo-op, but to build long-term strategic friendships. And in each country, our talks were friendly, even warm.

We listened to each leader’s vision for reform, and his record of accomplishments. We asked candid questions about the challenges facing Christians in their countries, and about the plans they have for improving religious freedom for Christians and all religious minorities.

We came away from each country encouraged.

• In Saudi Arabia, no churches have been built – yet – but I pray this will change soon. Still, there are important signs of progress. Thousands of extremist preachers have been fired from the mosques. Christian foreign nationals are increasingly allowed to gather in private homes for worship and Bible study without government interference. And the crown prince is beginning to reach out to leaders of other faiths, not only meeting with Evangelicals, but with the Coptic Orthodox pope in Cairo, the archbishop of Canterbury in London, and Jewish leaders in New York.

• In the United Arab Emirates, some 700 Christian churches now operate without fear of government persecution. New houses of worship are being built. And in February, the UAE welcomed Pope Francis to lead a mass attended by 185,000 people and broadcast on live TV – the first time a Roman Catholic pontiff has ever stepped foot on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1,400 years of Islam.

• In Jordan, King Abdullah II granted land along the Jordan River so that 13 Christian denominations could build churches and baptize Christians. Through documents like “The Amman Message” and “A Common Word,” the king has taken the lead in promoting religious moderation, tolerance and respect for Christians. Indeed, I would argue that under his wise leadership, Jordan is the safest and freest country for Christians in the entire Arab world.

• That said, perhaps the most dramatic progress is being made in Egypt. Under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, every church destroyed during the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign of terror has been rebuilt. Some 6,500 new churches have applied for permission to operate legally, and more than 1,000 have already been granted approval. The rest are operating freely while their applications are being reviewed, since the new church-building law states that the government has no right to close churches that have filed formal applications.

In January, President el-Sisi asked me to bring an Evangelical delegation to attend the dedication of the gorgeous Nativity of the Christ Cathedral near Cairo. I was honored to do so, and then visited the cathedral again a few days later with my friend, Secretary Pompeo.

When was the last time that a devout Muslim president, leader of the world’s largest Arab country, built a church – the largest in the Middle East – and gave it as a gift to the Christians of his country on Christmas Eve?

This was a game-changing moment, sending a powerful message not only to all Egyptians, but to all Muslims that Muslims and Christians really can live together in peace, despite our real and profound differences.

Last month I met with Bahrain’s foreign minister and ambassador. I told them how encouraged I was by King Hamad’s commitment to tolerance and moderation, and by his landmark “Bahrain Declaration” issued last year to further advance religious freedom.

Today I am pleased to announce that my colleague, the Reverend Johnnie Moore, and I, have accepted Bahrain’s gracious invitation to bring an Evangelical delegation to Manama this fall.

I don’t want to paint a rosy, naïve picture. Enormous challenges remain for Christians and other religious minorities in the Arab world. Deep change must occur in education, culture and government.

That said, as a dual-US-Israeli citizen, a Jewish Evangelical, building friendships with leaders throughout the Jewish and Muslim world, I see signs of hope. And I believe that when leaders of any country advance real reforms and make real progress – especially in the area of religious freedom – they should be publicly praised, even as we encourage them to do more.

The writer is a New York Times best-selling author with some five million copies in print. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons. His latest novel, The Persian Gamble, was released in March.

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