Middle East Christians Shunned Pence, but U.S. Supporters Are Thrilled With His Israel Trip

The vice president's Middle East trip was originally meant to draw attention to the plight of the region's Christians, but since Trump's Jerusalem declaration, they want nothing to do with him

Palestinians take part in a protest against the visit of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to Israel, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem January 21, 2018.
\ MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/REUTERS

When the White House first announced that Vice President Mike Pence would visit the Middle East in October, the trip was to draw attention to the plight of Christians in the region, and aim at securing their rights. Instead, Pence will complete his visit on Tuesday without holding a single meeting with a prominent Christian leader from any of the three countries he had visited -  Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

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Christian leaders in Egypt and Jerusalem decided to boycott his visit in protest over the Trump administration's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Palestinian Authority, which was originally part of Pence's itinerary, declared that he was " unwelcome in Palestine," leading to the cancellation of his visit to the holy city of Bethlehem.  

Pence's office briefed the journalists traveling with him that he raised the issue of protecting Egypt's Christian population in his meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on Saturday. That was, at least publicly, the only mention of the issue of Christians in the Middle East during a visit that originally was presented as focusing on their fate. 

What Pence's visit in Israel definitely has achieved, however, is praise from Christian leaders and politicians in the United States, who consider themselves strong supporters of Israel. Many of those leaders and politicians are also strong supporters of the Trump administration, at least partly due to its policy alignment with the current right-wing government in Israel. 

Rev. Tony Suarez, an evangelical pastor and a member of a group of evangelical leaders who advise President Trump on religious and policy issues, told Haaretz on Tuesday that "Vice president Pence's trip to Israel reinforces what we have seen time and again from this administration - that the United States is a strong ally to Israel and that we love not only the people, but also the land of Israel." 

Suarez added that "as evangelicals, we believe that this administration is honoring our faith by giving such support and importance to our ally Israel. We are grateful for that." Among America's religious groups, evangelicals offered the most support to Trump's 2016 election bid. 

Based on his own past visits to Israel, Suarez said that "I can only imagine how special this visit must by for the vice president in terms of his personal faith. I know he's visited Israel before, but every time you are there, the bible comes alive to you. Your faith comes alive. You're seeing places that we can usually only envision or illustrate. You become very close to your faith when you are in Israel, and I'm sure that for the vice president, his faith will come alive in a new way during this trip." 

Pence gave a speech filled with religious symbolism before the Knesset on Tuesday, quoting from the bible multiple times, and explaining his support for Israel not just in political and security-oriented terms, but also in moral and religious ones. Rev. Suarez told Haaretz that "I think it demonstrates how important his faith is to him and how it is connected to his strong support for Israel. You can see it in his speeches, in his writings; he is a man of great faith." 

Pence's speech received similar praise from Alan Clemmons, a conservative Republican state representative from South Carolina, who is a strong advocate for Israel and its settlements in the West Bank. "Vice president Pence and president Trump cannot be thanked enough for their support and service of the U.S.-Israel Relationship," Clemmons told Haaretz shortly after watching Pence's speech. 

"Those who know our vice president are aware that his personal love of Israel has in turn made support for the Jewish State one of his highest public service priorities. One could not help but feel that the speech he gave at the Knesset today was the culmination of decades of personal and professional effort," he added. 

Clemmons, who is a member of the Mormon church, said that the Trump administration's policies highlight the "anti-Israel" nature of the previous administration. "Those who love Israel are thanking God for this day," he added. 

Joel Rosenberg, an Evangelical author and activist who lives in Jerusalem, told Haaretz that "most American evangelicals will be very happy with this speech. He expressed very strong support for Israel." Rosenberg, who attended Pence's speech in the Knesset, added that "the vice president used more scripture and allusions to the bible that any speech by a foreign leader that I can recall. He did it in a very respectful way." 

Rosenberg cautioned, however, that not all evangelicals in the United States and around the world share the same views regarding the Trump administration's approach to the Middle East peace process. "Some Evangelicals ask how the timing of the Jerusalem decision served the purpose of reaching a peace deal," he said. "Did the vice president's speech make things easier today for the leaders of Jordan and Egypt, who both told him about some hardships caused by the Jerusalem decision? Probably not." 

Offering a broader view of the region, Rosenberg said that "the Trump administration is trying to fix some of the damages caused by the Obama administration, which created total disaster. But if their goal is to unite Israel and the Arabs against Iran, which is the biggest threat in the region, then they should think twice about things that can potentially unite the Muslim world against Israel."