WASHINGTON - An intense and sustained push by U.S. evangelicals helped drive President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and eventually relocate the U.S. embassy there, activists said on Wednesday.
While Trump had long pledged to move the embassy, the Republican president’s conservative Christian advisers repeatedly pressed the case in regular meetings at the White House, the conservative activists said.
“I have no doubt that evangelicals played a meaningful role in this decision,” said Johnnie Moore, a California pastor who serves as a spokesman for a council of leading evangelicals that advises the White House. “I don’t believe it would have happened without them.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
Many U.S. evangelicals have expressed strong solidarity with conservatives in Israel and feel a connection rooted in the Bible to the Jewish state.
Conservative Christians have long argued that formally recognizing Jerusalem, home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions, was long overdue following a 1995 congressional mandate to move the embassy from Tel Aviv. In Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, they found their most sympathetic audience.
Activists' efforts included an email campaign launched by the group My Faith Votes. The group is chaired by Mike Huckabee, the former Republican presidential candidate and father of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary.
The group posted a form on its website and urged people to contact the White House to press for recognition of Jerusalem as the capital.
Another evangelical group, American Christian Leaders for Israel, which includes conservative activists Gary Bauer and Penny Nance, sent a letter to Trump warning that time was of the essence in moving the embassy.
Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital was criticized by Palestinian leaders and others in the international community, who fear it will spark unrest in the region. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. No other country has its embassy in Jerusalem.
In June, Trump, like Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama before him, signed a waiver delaying the embassy move to Jerusalem in the hope of boosting his nascent efforts at brokering a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
With a deadline approaching for another such waiver, evangelical advocates saw a window to increase the pressure.
American Christian Leaders for Israel, in the letter to Trump posted on its website, said they were “gravely concerned that with every passing day it will become more difficult to move the embassy and if you do not do it now, it may never happen."
Trump first convened a circle of evangelical advisers during his presidential campaign, and he was the overwhelming favorite of white evangelical voters in last year's election.
Moore, a member of the evangelical group advising the administration, said a prominent Christian conservative was in the White House just about every day. Much of the access comes through the Office of Public Liaison and its deputy director, Jennifer Korn, whose portfolio includes faith groups.
“I’ve sat in many meetings with evangelicals in the White House since the administration began, and I can tell you this issue came up again and again and again,” Moore said. He said evangelicals made it clear to the White House that it was a priority of theirs and they wanted action soon.
Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and a close Trump adviser, said he had never talked to the president about the issue but had received emails from other leading evangelicals in the past several days “asking me to support this or tweet that, and try to get the word out.”
“The faith community has talked to the administration for months and months about the need to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” said Robert Jeffress, pastor at First Baptist Church in Dallas and an evangelical adviser to Trump.
”But the fact is, we didn't have to do any convincing of this administration. This was a campaign promise that President Trump was happy to keep because he feels that way," Jeffress said in a telephone interview with Reuters on Wednesday. (Reporting by James Oliphant and John Whitesides; Editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Cooney)