Israeli Parliamentarians Reach Out to Christian Groups in Holy Land
JERUSALEM — Until recently, Christians who had a problem renewing their Israeli visas or who wanted to launch a humanitarian project in Israel had to deal with individual government offices, with all the bureaucracy that entailed, in the hope that their requests would be handled promptly.
Much of the time, they weren't. Since January, however, Christians have been able to deal with the Israeli government through a single address: the Christian Allies Caucus.
The caucus was established by Israel's parliament, the Knesset, to streamline communications, coordinate activities and increase cooperation between the government and various Christian churches and organizations, including the Vatican.
The caucus “is also intended to increase awareness, both in Israel and the international community, of Israel's appreciation for the many contributions that its Christian supporters have made to its well being,” said Josh Reinstein, director of caucus operations.
What is remarkable about the caucus, Reinstein said, is the non-partisan participation of Knesset members from a variety of religious and non-religious, right-wing and left-wing factions. In all, 12 members — fully one-tenth of all Israeli parliamentarians — attend the frequent meetings alongside representatives from both mainstream and evangelical churches.
Since its inception, the caucus has dealt with a wide range of issues.
During one noteworthy meeting on visa problems, Interior Minister Avraham Poraz personally fielded complaints from frustrated church officials. Since then, say Christian representatives, the problems have lessened somewhat.
In a separate meeting devoted to anti-Semitism and its impact, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's nuncio to Israel, said, “We must understand that if Christians separate themselves from their roots, they cannot be complete Christians. We must make antiSemitism a sin, and those who practice it should be considered traitors.”
Seated in his cramped office in the Knesset, Yuri Shtern, co-chairman of the caucus, said that the group endeavors to underscore what Jews and Christians have in common, rather than what divides them.
“It is clear that nowadays, the Judeo-Christian civilization and the values we share are under attack by radical Islam but not only radical Islam,” Shtern said. “We see pagan cults, neo-Nazi and radical-left groups that are trying to chip away at our societies.
“To fight this modern war, both Jews and Christians must understand the source of these problems and realize that we can accomplish a great deal by working together.”
Knesset member Gila Gamliel said she jumped at the opportunity to join the caucus when she heard about it late last year. “It's a wonder that this kind of body wasn't created decades ago,” she said. “We have so much to give each other.”
Gamliel expressed hope that the caucus will spur various churches, including those not traditionally considered to be pro-Israel, to help counter the often-negative image of the Jewish state.
“People around the world need to realize that a small number of Jews are living in a sea full of dictatorships,” she said. “It's the same with Middle East Christians. We saw it recently in Iraq, when Muslim fundamentalists bombed churches.”
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a recent convert to Catholicism, acknowledged as much during a recent address to the caucus.
“Our past and present and our futures are intertwined together,” Brownback said. “As a Christian, I thank you for my faith that is rooted in yours. And, as a Christian, I deeply apologize for the pain and bloodshed and deafness to suffering that we have hoisted upon you and your ancestors.”
At the same time, Brownback warned Israelis against ignoring “the lessons of your ancestors.”
Said Brownback, “If your nation, in the culture wars of today, embraces relativism, redefines right and wrong, good and evil, many will be led astray.”
Christian leaders say the caucus has already had a positive impact on their relations with both Israeli government officials and ordinary civilians.
“We have received validation from the Jewish community,” said Clarence Wagner, international chairman of the pro-Israel organization Bridges for Peace. “The Knesset members now understand why we need to be here, and it has helped cut government red tape and frustration. They know the work we're doing and the fact that we're not just foreign workers taking away Israeli jobs.”
Petra Heldt, who heads the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel, a roof organization for what she terms the “historic churches” — Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant and others — says that the 40 mainstream churches she represents have been a bit more circumspect toward the caucus than their evangelical counterparts.
“The historic churches don't just join the bandwagon when there's something new,” Heldt said, adding that she sends out a report to all fraternity members. “Still, the longer it exists, the more people are taking it seriously. I think by the end of the year, we will see a personal representative from (all) the major churches,” Heldt said.
When asked whether Michel Sabbah, the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, planned to participate in the caucus, Father Shawki Baterian, chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate — the local arm of the Catholic Church — said that, to the best of his knowledge, the patriarch had not been informed of the group's existence.
“We have no problem to sit with anyone, but first someone must give us a proposal” to examine, Father Baterian said.
Patriarch Sabbah, who is a Palestinian, has been an outspoken critic of Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
In response to Father Baterian's comments, Reinstein said the caucus “is still young, and we have had the opportunity to meet with only a limited number of representatives.”
Reinstein noted that Archbishop Sambi has already participated in at least one meeting.
Israeli Parliamentarians Reach Out to Christian Groups in Holy Land.
The officials from various denominations who are participating in the caucus have already launched a number of projects, including the distribution of 16,000 backpacks and school supplies for Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Druze children. They have also launched an “Israel Experience” scholarship program for young Christian men and women to enable them to visit the Holy Land.
“This initiative has the potential for turning the tide in favor of Israel on American college campuses,” Shtern told the caucus in June. “American Christians have become our indispensable allies in positive advocacy for Israel in America.”
Michele Chabin writes from Israel.
- September 12-18, 2004