Friday, August 11, 2006

Evangelicals Quiet about War

The media has trouble covering evangelical Christians. They would love to have one voice to go to that represents all Evangelicals, as they have with the Pope for Catholics. Lacking that, they assign spokespeople, everyone from Pat Robertson to Jerry Falwell to James Dobson.

To wit ... from AP Religion writer Rachel Zoll ... Evangelicals quiet about war.

In the flurry of pro and con statements from American Christians regarding Israel's strikes on Hezbollah guerrillas, one major religious group has remained notably quiet -- evangelicals.

The most influential organizations in the movement, usually vocal backers of the Jewish state, have made no formal comment on the war in Lebanon despite pleas from Israelis that they do so.

Among those who have taken no official stand are the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents thousands of local churches and ministries, the 16.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention and James Dobson's Focus on the Family.

The Rev. Ted Haggard, president of the evangelical association, insists the inaction is not a criticism of Israel, but reflects a new caution about the risks for Christians living in Muslim countries. After the Sept. 11 attacks, American evangelicals came out strongly against terrorists, with some calling Islam a violent religion. That created a backlash overseas.

Haggard said Israeli embassy officials called him several times a day during the first two weeks of the conflict, which erupted last month, asking for a public expression of support. He declined.

"Our silence is not a rejection of Israel or even a hesitation about Israel. Our silence is to try to protect people," said Haggard, pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colo. "There's a rapidly growing evangelical population in virtually every Islamic country. Much of it is underground in the countries that are more radicalized, and many of the Christians survive based on their neighbors just ignoring the fact that they don't go to mosque."

Asked for comment, Richard Land, head of the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, said only that, "Southern Baptists overwhelmingly support Israel's right to live at peace with her neighbors within secure borders and they pray for the peace of Jerusalem to prevail in the Middle East."

Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for Focus on the Family, said Friday that his organization was "contemplating issuing a statement."

The three groups have far greater impact on public policy than do Christian Zionists, a minority among conservative Christians who back Israel unequivocally because they see its existence as part of biblical prophesy.

Many evangelicals have individually expressed support for Israel. Evangelist Pat Robertson was in Jerusalem this week, where he joined hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to pray for victory in Lebanon.

However, Robertson's support among American evangelicals is waning and other conservative Christians have quietly expressed concern about the hundreds of Lebanese civilians killed.

While Israel is the biblical homeland, Lebanon also holds a special place in the Christian community.

About 36 percent of its population is Christian, comprised mostly of Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, according to the World Christian Database at Gordon Conwell-Theological Seminary. And Christians across the spectrum of belief have long-standing missionary ties there, setting up hospitals, schools and other ministries.

The Web site of Christianity Today, a top evangelical magazine, has drawn comments from Lebanese Christians pleading with evangelicals to do more to end the violence.

"I think there is a little concern about being too closely identified with Israel on the part of some evangelicals," said Corwin Smidt, a political scientist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., who studies evangelicals. "I think there is some uneasiness."

Those reservations have mainly been expressed by the Roman Catholic Church and the more liberal mainline Protestant groups. The World Council of Churches, which represents about 350 Protestant and Orthodox Christian churches, along with the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican have repeatedly called for a cease-fire.

Nathan Diament, public policy director for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which has strengthened ties with evangelicals in the last few years, said "Israel needs as many friends as she can get right now," but he was not worried that some groups have not spoken out.

"I don't think anyone doubts the great support that Israel has in the evangelical community," he said.