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Land: Evangelical majority supports Israel’s Gaza withdrawal

WASHINGTON (BP)–A majority of American evangelical Christians support the Israeli government’s decision to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land estimated to members of a prominent foreign policy organization.

In a meeting with members of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Land said of evangelicals’ response to the August-September removal of Israeli settlers from that land, “You don’t bless the Jews by asking more for the Jews than they’re asking for themselves. And if the Israeli government elected by the Israeli people believes that this is in the best interest of … the Jews who are in the land, then far be it from us to try to force upon them something which they think is counter-productive for themselves.”

Forum moderator Luis Lugo, director of the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, had expressed surprise to Land there was not more protest from American evangelicals about Israel’s withdrawal from land it controlled.

There are “maybe 20 to 25 percent” of evangelicals who strongly support Israel who are “very disturbed by the withdrawal from Gaza,” estimated Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Land said he was “perfectly comfortable” with a two-state solution in that region, “particularly if the Palestinian state agrees to live at peace with her neighbors.”

Shimon Peres, former prime minister of Israel, told Land there were three facts others needed to understand about the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the ERLC president told the CFR members: (1) Jews and Arabs are nearly evenly split in population; (2) Israel is not going to stop being democratic, and (3) Israel will remain a Jewish state.

“If you are going to fulfill all three of those things, then you have to have a two-state solution,” Land said.

Land said he believes “it’s safe to say that a significant majority of the people who identify themselves as evangelicals believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews and that God is a keeper of His promises, and God has said that ‘God blesses those who bless the Jews, and God curses those who curse the Jews,’ and that if we want America to be blessed by God, then we need to not be cursing the Jews.”

That does not mean evangelicals “give blind acceptance of everything that the state of Israel does or has done,” he said, “but we do support the right of the Jews to exist in the land that God gave to them without any kind of limitation.”

Evangelicals support Israel not only for biblical reasons but because of what they regard as “American exceptionalism,” Land said.

“We don’t believe America is God’s chosen nation; we don’t believe America is the new Israel,” he said. “[W]e believe that God, for his own purposes, has chosen to give much to America, and to whom much is given, much is required.”

Evangelicals believe “it is part of our obligation as Christian citizens of this nation to do what we can to make certain that our government is not just a government of a nation with interests … but we also are a cause, and that cause is freedom; that cause is freedom of conscience; that cause is human dignity, and that we want our government to be a force for those things in the world and to help those who aspire to those things anywhere in the world, and thus we support Israel as the most stable and assertive democracy in the Middle East.”

Land acknowledged evangelicals would strongly protest certain actions by any United States administration toward Israel.

“If our American government were perceived as putting pressure on the Israeli government to make decisions that it was felt by the Israeli people and their government to endanger their security, it would cause a serious and cataclysmic failure in the levee of support for George W. Bush or any American [president],” he said.

When asked for three priorities evangelicals have on their foreign policy agenda, Land cited: (1) “Maximizing freedom and democracy in the world; [establishing] as many self-governing democracies as possible;” (2) guaranteeing “freedom of religion, freedom of conscience for all people everywhere,” and (3) “doing all we can to alleviate the grinding poverty that still causes so much pain and suffering in so many parts of the world.”

Land addressed the following topics as well during the Sept. 22 question-and-answer session:

— On evangelism of Jews: “I respect all faiths. I had a rabbi say to me last month … ‘I appreciate your commitment to Israel. I appreciate your insistence on freedom of religion. But your insistence that you have the right to evangelize Jews offends me.’ And I said, ‘Well, I can appreciate that, but if the price of respecting your faith is to disrespect mine, then it’s too high.’ I don’t have the right to coercively get you to listen to the Gospel. And you have to understand that for an evangelical Christian the sharing of one’s faith in Jesus is an act of love. It’s not an act of prejudice. It’s not an act of hate. And we don’t just try to evangelize Muslims and Jews. We evangelize family members.”

— On polls showing evangelicals’ negative view of Muslims: “I don’t think there’s a single answer to that. I think it’s related to persecution of non-Muslims in Muslim countries, the lack of freedom of religious expression in many [Islamic] countries, although not all. I think it has to do with terrorism. Unfortunately, a lot of evangelicals too easily equate radical Islam jihadism with Islam. Islam, like Christianity, is a many-splintered thing. You have to understand that evangelicals really, really believe in religious freedom for everyone. They believe that a person’s freedom of conscience in matters of faith is sacred, and they are offended when anybody seeks to coerce it.”

— On evangelical leaders describing Islam as “evil”: “I disagree with those statements, as do many evangelicals. I don’t think that you should define any religion as evil. I think you should describe actions as evil. If Serbian thugs are killing Muslims in Bosnia in the name of religion, that’s evil. If terrorists calling themselves Protestant or Catholic are killing each other in the name of religion in Ireland, that’s evil. If children are being recruited as suicide bombers in the name of Islam, that’s evil.”

— On religious liberty for Palestinians: “I think there should be more concern expressed…. I have expressed it, and I think other evangelical leaders are beginning to express it…. [W]e’re concerned about Palestinian rights being trampled, whether they’re being trampled by Israelis or whether they’re being trampled by Palestinian Authority groups since the control’s been turned over to them. I am very concerned, for instance, about the number of Palestinian Christians who have felt compelled to leave the West Bank and Gaza since control was returned to the Palestinian Authority.”

— On the justification for war in Iraq: “You’ll get different answers from different evangelicals. For me, the Iraq war was a continuation of 1991, when we resisted the invasion of Kuwait, and we stopped with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty, but a cease-fire, where Iraq agreed to meet certain conditions, none of which they met for 12 years. And after 12 years, we picked up the cease-fire and resumed the war. So clearly that would be a defensive war. For me, weapons of mass destruction were part of the justification for the liberation of Iraq, but it wasn’t the only justification.”

— On Iran: “I do not believe it is in the best interest of the world for Iran to develop nuclear weapons. I am comfortable with the process that is currently going forward to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons capabilities. Would I under all circumstances not support a military option? No, I wouldn’t under all circumstances not support a military option. I would seek to do what I do in every case, which would be to apply the principles of just war to any use of military force.”

The meeting, which was attended by about 65 CFR members and 20 reporters, was the first in a new series the organization is conducting about religion and foreign policy.

The CFR, which has an office in Washington but is headquartered in New York City, is a nonpartisan entity that holds meetings featuring world and government leaders, as well as academics and foreign policy experts.