U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Middle East this week was envisioned as a show of solidarity with Christian communities in the region suffering from persecution. Yet now, the vice president will not be meeting any Christians during his three-day visit to Egypt and Israel.
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Pence’s scheduled trip to the West Bank city of Bethlehem – the birthplace of Jesus and one of the most important sites in Christianity – has been called off, as has his meeting with the leader of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt.
Pence, a proud evangelical Christian, will pay a private visit to one of Judaism’s holiest sites, Jerusalem’s Western Wall, as soon as he lands in Israel on Wednesday. But he has no plans to visit any churches in the country or any other sites of significance for Christianity. Nor will he be meeting with leaders of the various Christian communities in Israel.
It goes without saying that the trip is no longer being billed as an effort to assist embattled Christians in the region.
An examination of various statements issued by Pence and his advisers indicates how the narrative surrounding the nature of the trip has shifted in recent months.
The turning point was obviously U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announcement that the U.S. Embassy would move there. Pence, who is closely aligned with the religious right, is regarded as a driving force behind the move, though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later said such a move is unlikely to take place during Trump’s current term in office.
The following timeline illustrates how the Jerusalem announcement forced Pence and his advisers to reframe the mission of the trip...
October 25: During a speech at a religious dinner in Washington, Pence announces his planned trip to the Middle East. “President Trump has directed me to go to the Middle East in late December,” he says. “One of the messages that I will bring on the president’s behalf to leaders across the region is that now is the time to bring an end to the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities.” That was all he revealed about the trip back then.
December 2: In an interview on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Pence discloses that the nature of his upcoming trip has become far broader. Helping combat the persecution of Christians in the Middle East was still part of the agenda but was no longer a major thrust of the visit, his statements suggest. (It had also become clear by now that a major announcement on the status of Jerusalem was in the offing.)
Asked to expound on the trip’s purpose, Pence begins by speaking about America’s great love for Israel, followed by its determination to bring peace to the region. Only at the end of his remarks does he mention a desire to help embattled Christians.
“If the world knows nothing else, the world should know this: Under President Donald Trump, America stands with Israel and we’ll be delivering that strong message,” he tells interviewer David Brody. “It was 70 years ago that the nation of Israel in a miracle of history came back into existence in its ancient homeland, and every day Americans have cherished that accomplishment and we’ll be there to celebrate that. But as we travel the region as well, we’ll also reaffirm our commitment to peace in the region. The president has made it clear that we want peace. But people should know that President Trump will never compromise the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel in the midst of that process.”
Only at this point does he get to what was supposed to have been the original purpose of the trip. “I’ll also be traveling to Egypt, where we’ll be talking about the issue of persecuted Christians and religious minorities across the wider Arab world,” he says.
December 6: President Trump announces that the United States has decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the U.S Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The announcement sparks days of anger and protests across the Arab world.
December 9: Egypt’s Coptic Church leader Pope Tawadros II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas both announce they will not meet with Pence during his upcoming visit, in protest at the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Palestinian Christians are urged to follow suit.
December 10: By now, all references to Christian outreach efforts on the upcoming vice presidential trip have disappeared. In a Twitter post, Pence’s press secretary, Alyssa Farah, notes that in his upcoming meetings with Egyptian and Israeli leaders, the vice president will “reaffirm our commitment to work with partners throughout the Middle East to defeat radicalism that threatens the hopes and dreams of future generations.”
December 13: Pence’s Israel visit is delayed by several days, the official reason being the Republican Party’s tax reforms. “Yesterday, the White House informed Senate Leadership that due to the historic nature of the vote in the Senate on tax cuts for millions of Americans, the Vice President would stay to preside over the vote. He will then travel to Israel and Egypt,” Farah tweeted the following day.
December 14: In a continuation of her tweet, Farah once again fails to mention the suffering Christian communities that had been the original prompt for the trip. Instead, she reiterates almost verbatim her previous post, noting that the vice president will “reaffirm the United States’ commitment to its allies in the Middle East and to working cooperatively to defeat radicalism.”