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RELIGION: U.S. Evangelicals Approach Muslim Envoys

Bill Berkowitz*

OAKLAND, Jul 25 2007 (IPS) - That it happened at all was a major feat. That not much was resolved was not surprising. That those involved are determined to meet again is fascinating. That it was organised by a controversial faith healer has made it that much more noteworthy.

In early July, a historic meeting took place "behind closed doors" at the Egyptian embassy in Washington, the Washington Times&#39 Julia Duin recently reported. The two-hour meeting, between mostly conservative U.S evangelical Christian leaders, and ambassadors and advisors from several Middle East countries, was "orchestrated" by the flamboyant Pentecostal evangelist Benny Hinn, founder of Benny Hinn Ministries.

"The meeting was extremely productive," said Hinn, a pastor well known for his international healing crusades. "We had a candid exchange of ideas. The Christian leaders who met with the Middle Eastern ambassadors and advisors represented many factions of the religious community, from evangelicals to Pentecostals and more traditional denominations, and from educators to political insiders."

"The purpose of the exchange was to encourage continuing dialogue between evangelical Christians and Arab leaders for the purpose of furthering the Gospel in these regions. I truly feel it was the beginning of a new era of opening the door to the Gospel in the Middle East," he said.

According to press reports, the meeting centred on two issues: The U.S. delegation was focused on religious freedom in Muslim countries, and the ambassadors wanted to know whether Christians could become more "balanced" in their support of Israel.

"It was an extraordinarily unusual meeting," the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told IPS. "It was particularly strange that delegates from the Islamic world would meet with fringes of American Christendom."

"If they wanted to have a serious dialogue about Muslim/Christian relations, they should have met with leaders of the Presbyterians, the Methodists and the United Church of Christ, and not with these fringe characters," he said.

While serious issues were on the table, the meeting, which took place at the Washington home of Nabil Fahmy, Egypt&#39s ambassador to the United States, also served as a coming out party for the sons of the evangelical rich and famous.

U.S. attendees included the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, son of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and head of Spiritual Affairs at Liberty University; Gordon Robertson, son of televangelist Pat Robertson and vice president of internet media for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN); and Paul Crouch Jr., son of Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch Sr. and vice president of administration for the network.

Other Christian leaders included Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, who is currently chairman and CEO of Century Strategies. Reed, a longtime political consultant to the Republican Party, is perhaps the most prominent figure on the Christian right who has been closely associated with the now imprisoned Republican uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

No U.S. women were present.

In addition to Fahmy, other Middle Eastern attendees included Farid Abboud (Ambassador of Lebanon), Hussein Hassouna (Ambassador of the League of Arab States), Nasser Al Belooshi (Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain), Amine Kherbi (Ambassador of Algeria), Ali Aujali (Ambassador of Libya), Samir Sumaid&#39ie (Ambassador of Iraq), Nabil El- Dakheel (Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the State of Kuwait), Abdel Hakim Al-Eryani (Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Yemen), Mahmoour Al- Hinaei (Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Sultan of Oman), Ms. Laila Alaoui (PR Counselor, Embassy of the King of Morocco), and Ashraf Salama (Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt).

According to the National Association of Evangelicals&#39 Richard Cizik, the meeting was conducted totally in English, and was overseen by Hinn, a native of Jaffa, Israel, who speaks Arabic. "Benny put it together," Cizik told the Washington Times. "He seemingly knew all the ambassadors; he went around the table and greeted everyone. It&#39s not so much that it happened as who made it happen and who was there."

"A lot of theological boundaries were crossed," said Cizik, who added that he was asked to organise a follow-up meeting. "Here was a leading Pentecostal minister with the [non-Pentecostal] son of Jerry Falwell." Reed, he said, "has been a partner with some pro-Israel groups. So it was a surprise to see him there too."

CBN&#39s Gordon Robertson said that, "Now more than ever Christians need to reach out with love and compassion to the people of the Middle East. I join with Pastor Benny Hinn in reaching out to Israel with one arm and the Arab nations with the other. May God allow these efforts to grow and prosper so that one day the Middle East will no longer be a place of conflict but a place of peace."

The Rev. Jonathan Falwell noted that this was only the first small step in what he saw as a long process: "We all agreed that this would not be the last meeting. We promised that this dialogue would continue, that we were willing to visit their countries, meet their people, and attempt to continue the conversation to build a more peaceful future for our children and theirs…This truly was a historic meeting."

"In fact," Americans United&#39s Barry Lynn pointed out, "many of these religious right leaders don&#39t really understand the concept of religious freedom. I don&#39t expect this is going to go very far."

"We&#39ve read reports by the Christian evangelical attendees with interest, especially what seemed to be their acknowledgement that Christian Zionism – &#39favouring Israel,&#39 as they put it – is impeding their entrée into the Arab world," Jane Hunter, co-director of the JewsOnFirst website, told IPS.

Christian Zionism, embraced by many prominent U.S. evangelical leaders, is the belief that the modern state of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical "End Times" prophecy and thus deserving of political, financial and religious support.

"We also found interesting Jonathan Falwell&#39s and Benny Hinn&#39s discussion of &#39religious freedom&#39 in the Arab world from their customary vantage point, rather than as pluralism that could benefit Arab societies. But why should we be surprised at that, given the Christian right&#39s lack of interest in pluralism here at home?" Hunter said.

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column "Conservative Watch" documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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