Backward, Christian soldiers, marching as to peace

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During the run-up to the 1998 Christmas celebrations, U.S. president Bill Clinton, along with his wife, Hillary, and daughter, Chelsea, visited the Palestinian town of Bethlehem to light up the Christmas tree in Manger Square, outside the Church of the Nativity. With that symbolic visit, and the understanding that Mr. Clinton was showing to the needs of the region, Palestinians of all faiths had high hopes that the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict might soon end. It didn’t. Early next month, President George W. Bush will be also visiting the West Bank and, like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice before him, will likely visit the birthplace of Jesus. If he does, he will join members of the dwindling Palestinian Christian community, the majority of whom are Eastern Orthodox and who celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7.

Coming after renewed negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, the visit to the occupied territories will be welcomed by Palestinians. But it will be hard to quickly forget the last seven years of the Bush administration and its unconditional support for Israel, with its heavy-handed policies toward Palestinians and Lebanese.

Most Arabs don’t understand the ideological underpinnings for U.S. support to Israel, which many believe contradicts overall U.S. interests in the region.

One explanation for this special relationship has to do with a strange blend of faith and politics. Mr. Bush, in particular, uses frequent references to divine calling to explain his approach to foreign policy. This unholy mix of religion and policy is best exemplified by the theology and policies of what are commonly referred to as Christian Zionists. These fundamentalist Christians (often, mistakenly, referred to as evangelicals), use their interpretation of the Bible to justify support for Israel and its hard-line policies.

But, after many years of being closely in sync, Mr. Bush and the Christian Zionists are showing signs of a falling-out. Following the one-day meeting in Annapolis, Md., late in November, aimed at kick-starting Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, a leading pro-Israeli Christian group, The Jerusalem Connection International, stated that "the evangelical support for Israel is shrinking."

The Jerusalem Connection, which highlights the letters USA in the middle of the word Jerusalem, is run by a retired U.S. Army brigadier-general, Rev. James Hutchens. Mr. Hutchens, who demonstrated in protest along with other Christian Zionists outside the Annapolis summit, blames the reduction in support for Israel on a handful of evangelical leaders who signed a statement supporting a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The 80 leading Christian evangelical leaders, who signed the statement published in the Nov. 28 edition of Christianity Today, are perhaps the best and brightest among U.S. evangelicals. They are not, as Mr. Hutchens describes them, "naive, misguided and dead wrong about Israel." They have become more vocal of late, but their position follows years of commitment to a just peace.

Evangelical leaders, such as Prof. Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, have been joined by presidents of Christian universities (such as Wheaton College) and theological seminaries (such as Fuller), heads of major charities (such as World Vision) and editors of publications such as Christian Today and Sojourners. All are calling for a balanced solution to the conflict.

Christian Zionism has suffered of late from a strong theological attack of their hawkish ideas from fellow evangelicals. Critiques from learned leaders such as Rev. Don Wagner of North Park University and Rev. Steven Sizer of Britain have attacked what they see as the theological inconsistencies of the Christian Zionist advocates. The book Whose Promised Land? by Rev. Colin Chapman (now in its fourth edition) laid the ground for debunking religious terminology that justified aggression against Palestinians.

Palestinian Christian leaders, led by Rev. Canon Naim Ateek, director of the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Theological Centre, has also been a major contributor in the weakening of both theology and its application. They have rejected the warped attempts by some Christians in the West to use the Bible in defence of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Christian Zionists also have been weakened by the failures of some of the policies put forward by their man in the White House. The failure of the Iraq occupation, a product of divine calling, according to Mr. Bush, has recently been followed by the intelligence report on Iran that contradicted arguments being made by Israel and its Christian Zionist allies. All this has had a significant cooling effect.

The rise and fall of religious fundamentalism has often paralleled political success or failures. Fundamentalist Jews were so excited by Israel’s 1967 victory that they began an expansionist settlement program in the West Bank (which they called by its Biblical names Judea and Samaria). That program persists to this day. The Khomeini revolution in Iran encouraged an export of radical Islam. For Christian Zionists, the ascension of Mr. Bush and Ariel Sharon were signs from God that their radical theology was finding an executive arm.

Mr. Bush’s apparent rollback from the Christian Zionists could produce a more pragmatic regional policy. That is something that peace-loving Christians, Muslims and Jews will all welcome.

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