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“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)
In an age of horrific attacks against Jews, Christians, Muslims and those of other religions, these words from the Book of Proverbs must be our mission.
To this end, I want to thank the President, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, and Ambassador Brownback for making the advancement of religious freedom a top global priority, and for holding this conference to let us speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.
I have titled my remarks, “Advancing Religious Freedom In The Middle East: An Israeli Evangelical’s Perspective,” and I’d like to share a few thoughts in two areas:
- The state of religious freedom in Israel.
- The state of religious freedom in the Arab Muslim world.
First, some context. I am the grandson of Orthodox Jews who escaped from Russia in the early years of the 20th century when Jews were being beaten, raped and murdered in the “pogroms.” By God’s grace, my grand-parents and great-grandparents came to America and it was here that they were free to pray, keep kosher, and study Torah.
It was here that my father was raised Orthodox Jewish. It was here that my father was free to study not only the Hebrew Scriptures, but the New Testament, as well. Free to study and explore. Free to ask hard and unpopular questions.Free to come to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth is, in fact, the Messiah of whom our prophets wrote and our people longed. So, in 1973, my father became follower of Jesus.
A few years later, I became a follower of Jesus, as well, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Five years ago, my wife and sons and I were free to make another choice – we embarked on a process known as “making Aliyah.” That is, we became citizens of Israel. To be clear, we became dual citizens of the U.S. and Israel.We sold our home, sold or gave away most of our possessions, and moved to Israel to start a new life.
Today, we live in Jerusalem. Two of our sons serve in the Israeli army. Slowly but surely, we’re putting down our roots in ancient soil. It has been the hardest and most exciting journey of our lives, and it has given us a unique perspective on the state of religious freedom in Israel.
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. A safe harbor for Jews from all over the world, regardless of how religious or secular they may be. And 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 Qur’an, and raise their children in their faith.
- Only about 2% are Christians — Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, and Messianic Jews; we are a small minority, but absolutely free to practice our faith & to preach it.
Do religious minorities in Israel face a variety of governmental and societal challenges? We do, including an inordinate and unhealthy control by one faith stream – ultra-Orthodox Judaism, a relatively small minority – over political decisions affecting the lives of everyone else, the vast majority in Israel, including rules governing marriage, divorce, burial, immigration and so much else.
There is much 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 what you hear from our 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 week, 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 regards 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, 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 and 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.
I wish I had time to share all that we learned, but I can report that 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 U.A.E. 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 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 the wise leadership of His Majesty, 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 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 of State Mike 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?
My friends, 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.
There is so much more I wish I could share with you.
On Monday, I met with Bahrain’s Foreign Minister and Ambassador. I told them how encouraged I am by King Hamad’s commitment to tolerance and moderation, and by the landmark “Bahrain Declaration” His Majesty issued last year to further advance religious freedom. And I’m 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. But, as a dual-U.S.-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.
Allow me to close with a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18, approved by the U.N. General Assembly in December 1948.“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; [and] this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief.”
Perhaps the most uncomfortable element for some when it comes to discussing religious freedom is the right not only to choose one’s faith, but to change it. Yet we must not shy away from this topic, sensitive though it is.
For having the freedom to decide what we believe about God – and the freedom to change our mind – is a sacred human right, granted to us by God Himself. Government’s job is not to grant rights, but to guard them. And no human right – none – is more important than the right to seek the truth about who God is, how we can know Him personally, and how our soul can spend eternity with Him.
This is the freedom my father found here in America. And this is the freedom that changed his life, and mine.
Thank you for all you do to defend this right. And for speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves. God bless you – may your tribe increase.
This article was originally published on Joel C. Rosenberg’s blog on July 18, 2019