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Evangelical leaders speak into U.S. aid to Israel, Ukraine

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WASHINGTON (BP) — U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson heard from select evangelical leaders in a press call in advance of the chamber’s weekend passage of a $95 million foreign aid package.

The U.S. must support Israel, Ukraine and other allies in a battle that threatens democracy and religious freedom beyond Europe and the Middle East at the united hands of China, Iran and Russia, leaders said in the press call Johnson convened April 19.

Brent Leatherwood, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Baptists are particularly vested in support for Ukraine and Israel.

“As it relates to Ukraine specifically, Baptists are horrified by the systematic persecution of people of faith, a number of whom are fellow Baptists,” Leatherwood said on the call. “The intentional targeting of houses of worship, including Baptist churches and institutions, and of course the annihilation of so many innocent lives under the direction of Vladimir Putin.”

Russia has relentlessly persecuted Christians in its war on Ukraine, banning religious groups, shuttering houses of worship, and abducting, detaining, imprisoning and torturing religious leaders. In the first year of the war alone, Russia tortured and killed at least 26 religious leaders in Ukraine, according to religious freedom advocates including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“The SBC and so many churches within our convention have a unique and personal relationship with Ukraine because of the incredible number of missionaries who have been sent there and the largest Baptist population in Eastern Europe,” Leatherwood said, referencing a 2022 SBC resolution condemning Russia’s war and standing in solidarity with Ukraine.

“That is where our churches are and where America should always be and that’s where that’s where Speaker Johnson is leading us.”

Days after Hamas incited the Israel-Hamas War, Leatherwood joined other SBC entity leaders in supporting an Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel signed by thousands. The war has escalated with fighting between Israel and Iran.

“Since the inception of the modern state of Israel in 1948, Israel has faced numerous attacks, incursions, and violations of its national sovereignty” the statement reads. “The Jewish people have long endured genocidal attempts to eradicate them and to destroy the Jewish state. These antisemitic, deadly ideologies and terrorist actions must be opposed.”

In the press call, evangelical leaders praised Johnson, a Southern Baptist, for forging ahead in bipartisan support for the aids package despite Republican opposition, including calls for his removal as speaker.

“As someone who works both at the state and federal level and has for a long time, there’s only one thing the federal government can do that the rest of the governments in this country can’t do and that’s protect our country,” Patriot Voices Chairman Rick Santorum said on the press call. “In fact, absolutely essential for our national security is that we can be trusted by our allies and support our allies and at the same time be feared by our enemies.”

The House version of the foreign aid package, passed April 20 with bipartisan support, includes $61 billion for Ukraine, $26 billion for Israel and $8 billion for allies in the Indo-Pacific region. Israel’s allocation includes $9 billion in humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

“We did our work here and I think history will judge it well,” Johnson said after the vote.

Other evangelicals participating in Johnson’s press call were Gary Marx, president of Defenders of Faith and Religious Freedom in Ukraine; Sandy Hagee Parker, chairwoman of Christians United for Israel, and Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

The Senate is set to vote on the aid package April 23, with passage anticipated in the majority Democrat chamber.

Josh Hodges, Johnson’s national security advisor, described the bill as comprehensive in its reach.

“It will actively cut off Russia, China and Iran’s ability to enhance cooperation and continue to fund their acts of aggression around the world,” Hodges said on the call.