Rev. Peter Fast, CEO-elect of Bridges for Peace, and his predecessor, Rev. Rebecca Brimmer, in Jerusalem, June 13, 2023. Credit: Courtesy of Bridges for Peace.
by Etgar Lefkovits
(JNS) — A concerted effort is underway by some mainstream churches to convince evangelical Christians to be less supportive of Israel, the incoming head of an evangelical organization headquartered in Jerusalem says.
Rev. Peter Fast, CEO-elect of Bridges for Peace, spoke in an interview with JNS on June 13.
The remarks come two months after the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem lambasted Israeli restrictions on the number of worshippers allowed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem for the Holy Fire ceremony over Easter.
News agencies fanned the criticism worldwide, only to have it later emerge that a church engineer had requested the limitations over safety concerns.
“The big churches are using a very loud voice to malign, fabricate and twist the story to make Israel look like a human rights violator and oppressor of faith,” Fast told JNS.
These efforts to depict Israel as infringing on Christians’ freedom of worship are an effort to influence evangelicals around the globe, who are seen as the main Christian supporters of the State of Israel, and need to be countered with education, he said.
“Christianity in Israel is the only place in the Middle East which is growing and protected, while elsewhere in the Middle East it is oppressed, shrinking, vulnerable or leaving,” Fast said.
But public opinion polls have shown a dramatic drop in support for Israel among young evangelicals in recent years.
“It’s not just Israel,” said Rev. Rebecca Brimmer, who is stepping down from her role as head of the organization after 18 years.
“We are losing young Christian people to secular humanism,” she said, attributing the survey results to a general trend of a decline in belief in their faith.
Loving Israel “is in our DNA”
Like the larger International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, Brimmer’s unabashedly pro-Israel institution, which has offices in nine countries, has gained a name over the years for promoting Jewish immigration and helping the needy and Holocaust survivors in Israel.
“There have always been two camps,” she said of the criticism of Israel among other church denominations. “Organizations like ours have job security thanks to Christian antisemitism.”
Looking back at her time in Israel, Brimmer said that she has seen an “incredible change” over the last three decades in how Christians are perceived by the Jewish people as concerns over proselytizing and bitter memories of the past have been increasingly overshadowed by their active support for the Jewish state.
“Israelis have started to understand that not all Christians are identical, [even if] there is still a tendency to lump us all together,” she said.
“Loving God and Israel is in our DNA,” Brimmer said at a Jerusalem event marking the change of leadership at Bridges for Peace, where she received accolades from Israeli leaders involved in interfaith relations.
Josh Reinstein, director of the Knesset’s Christian Allies Caucus, told Brimmer at the event, “Your love of God and the Bible is only matched by your love of Israel.”
He noted that Brimmer was a pioneer in faith-based diplomacy, predating the establishment of the cross-party parliamentary lobby two decades ago.
The event, where Jewish and Christian speakers pledged to continue working together with the next generation of leaders, was in itself testimony to the burgeoning relations between Israel and the largely supportive evangelical community around the world.
Educational work ahead
“We are guilty of resting on our laurels and we have a serious educational task not to lay back but to pursue and renew in each and every generation,” said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
He has said Israel is living in “the golden age” of Jewish-Christian relations.
Rosen ascribed the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate’s baseless criticisms and international campaign against Israel to struggles within the Church to please rank-and-file Palestinian members.
“This is a narrow segment of the Christian world using false disinformation that no one is buying,” Rosen said.
He said Israel also has work to do to speak out against all forms of racism.
A recent uptick in isolated incidents of Jewish extremists from the ultra-Orthodox community spitting at Christians has been condemned by the two chief rabbis of Israel as recently as last week as well as by the Chief Rabbinate.
Brimmer noted the 180-degree change from such actions, which she herself routinely encountered three-and-a-half decades ago, to words of thanks from Israelis for standing with Israel.
Both Fast and Brimmer said it took time to repair centuries of Christian persecution of Jews.
“Although the horrors and tragedies that have strained the relationship between our two communities for more than 17 centuries cannot be erased, we strive to form a new future of uncompromising love and support to the Jewish people,” Fast said.
Closing a circle
Brimmer recounted how as a little girl in the U.S. during the 1967 Six-Day War, her family sat on the floor glued to the TV screens at the direction of her pastor father as Israel reunited Jerusalem.
“Look, girls,” her father told them, taking out his Bible and referencing the Book of Ezekiel. “It is happening in our lifetime.”