Letter by 60 Christian leaders criticizes pro-Israel evangelicals

WASHINGTON (BP)--A group of Christian leaders has called on President Bush to adopt an "even-handed policy" toward the Israelis and Palestinians, in the process charging some American evangelicals have twisted Scripture to provide unqualified support for Israel's government.

Such an accusation is a "case of building a straw man and seeking to tear him down," Southern Baptist public-policy specialist Richard Land said in response.

In a letter to Bush, 60 signers, identifying themselves as American evangelicals, endorsed a U.S. policy that "affirms the valid interests" of both sides in the Middle East conflict. They also told the president the "American evangelical community is not a monolithic bloc in full and firm support of present Israeli policy."

"Significant numbers of American evangelicals reject the way some have distorted biblical passages as their rationale for uncritical support for every policy and action of the Israeli government instead of judging all actions -- of both Israelis and Palestinians -- on the basis of biblical standards of justice," they wrote.

Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, questioned who would be guilty of such a charge.

"Just exactly who among evangelicals is furnishing 'uncritical support for every policy and action of the Israeli government instead of judging all actions -- of both Israelis and Palestinians -- on the basis of biblical standards of justice?' I don't know any evangelicals who are giving uncritical support to everything Israel does," Land said. "I don't know any evangelicals who give uncritical support to anyone but God."

In their letter, the writers endorsed a free state for the Palestinians. They condemned the suicide bombings that have occurred for nearly two years and the failure of the Palestinian Authority "to stop the violence against Israeli citizens."

Their letter also urged Bush to oppose injustice, "including the continued unlawful and degrading Israeli settlement movement."

"The theft of Palestinian land and the destruction of Palestinian homes and fields is surely one of the major causes of the strife that has resulted in terrorism and the loss of so many Israeli and Palestinian lives," they wrote. "The continued Israeli military occupation that daily humiliates ordinary Palestinians is also having disastrous effects on the Israeli soul."

Israel contends its settlements in disputed territories are not illegal.

The Old Testament prophets, "who were pro-Israel, knew God would never bless Israel if it did not do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before God," Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw told The Washington Post, citing Micah 6:8. "And bombing little Palestinian kids in order to get at one leader ... and then claim it was a successful military operation -- that is not doing justice and that is not showing mercy."

Land said while he does not endorse all actions by Israel's government, "there seems to be in the letter an assumption of moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and that is dangerous nonsense.

"Are the Israelis perfect and blameless? No. Are they guided by standards of justice and morality that seem to find no place in the councils of [Palestinian Authority leader] Yasser Arafat and his minions? Yes," Land said.

"I find it distressing that there is no allusion in this letter to the corrosive, vile, malignant and virulent anti-Semitism spewed forth into the hearts and minds of Arab young people and children by the Palestinian Authority's official news agencies. Such anti-Semitism breeds a new generation of suicide bombers," Land said.

Among those signing on to the July 26 letter in addition to Mouw were author Tony Campolo, evangelist Leighton Ford, Denver Seminary Chancellor Vernon Grounds, author Gordon MacDonald, Christianity Today editor David Neff, Prison Fellowship International President Ronald Nikkel, community activists John Perkins and Eugene Rivers, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Robert Seiple and Evangelicals for Social Action President Ronald Sider.

Mouw told The Post the letter was saying to the White House, "Hey, there are some of us who are not quite in sync with the loudest voices [among evangelicals]. And if you're motivated by a desire to please the evangelical community, you've got to know that some of us are not pleased by the heavy-handed favoring of the Israeli side in all of this."

Another signer, Wheaton College professor Gary Burge, told The Post the group wanted Bush to know "Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, just to take two names, do not represent the evangelical voice of America. They represent a segment ... but not the majority."

Land said, "Anyone familiar with the real landscape of evangelical Christianity in America would conclude that the signers collectively represent a segment of evangelical opinion but not a majority. The bottom line is that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist in the land, and the Bible says that God promised that land to the Jews in perpetuity."

In June, Land said on the eve of the SBC's annual meeting that Christian support for Israel "is a matter of being obedient to God and obeying God's command to bless his chosen people."

Land cited God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis that included a promise to make of him a great nation through Isaac and to bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. "God doesn't make conditional covenants, and he doesn't negotiate. It's God's way or the highway," Land said.

His comments came at a briefing in St. Louis sponsored by a new organization, Stand for Israel. Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., also spoke.

Stand for Israel is seeking to mobilize 100,000 churches and 1 million American Christians to support Israel. The organization is calling on Christians to join in a Day of Prayer and Solidarity for Israel on Oct. 20.

Ralph Reed, chairman of the Georgia Republican Party and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, and Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, are cochairmen of Stand for Israel.

Another campaign, The Jerusalem Prayer Team, is encouraging American Christians to pray for Israel. The group, headed by evangelist Mike Evans and Jerusalem Major Ehud Olmert, wants to enlist 1 million Americans to pray daily and 100,000 houses of worship to pray weekly for the peace of Jerusalem.

Other American Christian leaders who signed the letter to Bush were Clive Calver, president of World Relief of the National Association of Evangelicals; John Dellenback, former director of the Peace Corps and former member of the House of Representatives; author Colleen Townsend Evans; John Ortberg, teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago; James Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice; Glen Stassen, Fuller Seminary professor and former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Richard Stearns, president of World Vision U.S.; and author Philip Yancey.

A letter to Bush from some Christian leaders in Israel also criticized the Jewish state's policies. In early June, Alex Awad wrote an open letter, criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and saying he "is not a man of peace," ASSIST News Service reported.

"Sharon is crushing the Palestinian people and humiliating them and their leadership to assure the survival of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip," wrote Awad, whom ASSIST described as a United Methodist missionary and pastor of the East Jerusalem Baptist Church. Bishara Awad, president of Bethlehem Bible College and Alex's brother, endorsed the letter, according to ASSIST.

Bethlehem Bible College is an interdenominational Christian college.