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Religious Leaders Divided Over Trump's Jerusalem Decision

Ahmad Gharabli

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President Trump's declaration that Jerusalem is Israel's capital and his order to move the U.S. Embassy brought quick and sharply differing reactions from Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders.

The government of Israel considers Jerusalem its capital, and most Jewish-American organizations have long argued that the United States should acknowledge it as such. The 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act, which called for the U.S. Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, passed by a large bipartisan margin and was strongly supported by Jewish-American groups.

"It's been the consensus mainline view for decades," said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, "because Jerusalem is the capital city for Israel and the Jewish people. ... The United States puts its embassies in capital cities, and it's unjust and discriminatory to say we're going to single out Israel as the one country where we don't put our embassy [in the capital]."

When President Trump on Wednesday ordered the State Department to begin preparations to move the embassy to Jerusalem, several Jewish-American groups welcomed the move.

"By stating the truth of Jerusalem's status as the capital of the State of Israel, President Trump has asserted U.S. global leadership towards ending a longstanding, senseless anomaly," said David Harris, chief executive officer of the American Jewish Committee.

The Anti-Defamation League called the move a "significant step," coming at a time "when international organizations and other detractors delegitimize the Jewish state and deny any Jewish connection to the holy city."

But there were also misgivings from some Jewish-American groups. The Reform Jewish Movement, representing nearly 900 congregations, noted that it has long supported the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital but also believed that moving the U.S. Embassy there should happen only "at the right time." Without a comprehensive peace plan, the movement said it cannot support the president's decision to move the embassy now.

Conservative evangelical Christian leaders had fewer qualms.

"This decision will be met by political praise and theological conviction," said Johnnie Moore, an informal spokesman for Trump's evangelical advisory group. "Evangelicals in every corner of the United States will be ecstatic," he said.

Evangelicals feel a special kinship with Jerusalem as the city where they believe Jesus Christ was crucified and rose again. Some sects even take an eschatological view, arguing that Jesus will return to earth in Jerusalem, once all Jews are reunited there.

For Trump's evangelical advisory group, said Moore, the only issue more important than the status of Jerusalem is the question of who will be appointed as federal judges.

"In our various meetings with the White House, this issue has always come up," Moore said, "and it has always been an extended discussion around the table. I mean, at the heart of the relationship between the United States and Israel has been the friendship between evangelical Christians and the Jewish people."

Some evangelical leaders who generally support the president's Jerusalem decision, however, fear the repercussions for their own Palestinian Christian followers. Muslim leaders in the Palestinian territories have warned there will be a reaction there to the president's announcement. The governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey all expressed alarm at Trump's decision, as did Muslim leaders in the U.S.

"The reality is that Palestinians have existed for generations on the land of Palestine [and] in Jerusalem," said Osama Abuirshaid, a board member of the American Muslims for Palestine, at a press conference near the White House. "[Trump] cannot deny this reality," Abuirshaid said. "He spoke about the Jewish connection to Jerusalem while negating the Christian and Muslim connection to the land and to the holy city."

Pope Francis advised against "adding new elements of tension in a world already shaken and scarred by many cruel conflicts." The heads of several Christian churches in Jerusalem, in a joint letter to Trump, said a unilateral change in the status of Jerusalem by the U.S. government "will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence, and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land ... [and] cause irreparable harm."

A similar warning came from Elizabeth Eaton, the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the largest Lutheran group in the U.S.

"This announcement," Eaton said, "has a high probability of leading to violence and bloodshed and not ... getting any closer to having the two parties come to the table again."

Eaton spoke following a meeting in Geneva with fellow Lutheran chuch leaders from around the world, including those in Jordan and other Arab countries.

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