Monday’s ceremony marking the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem broke with tradition in more ways than one.
Besides the political concerns over the move itself, a pair of Christian evangelical leaders were on hand whose words have caused their own share of controversy.
Pastor John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, delivered the benediction at the ceremony.
“We thank you, O Lord, for President Donald Trump’s courage in acknowledging to the world a truth that was established 3,000 years ago – that Jerusalem is and always shall be the eternal capital of the Jewish people,” Hagee said.
“And because of that courage of our President, we gather here today to consecrate the ground upon which the United States Embassy will stand reminding the dictators of the world that America and Israel are forever united,” he added.
A major proponent of the embassy move, Hagee said in a recent interview with conservative news site Breitbart that he told Trump he would win “political immortality” for moving the embassy from Tel Aviv.
“I told him that the moment that you do that, I believe that you will step into political immortality,” the news site quoted Hagee as saying. “Because you are having the courage to do what other presidents did not have the courage to do.”
Meanwhile, another controversial evangelical pastor, Robert Jeffress, said a prayer at the embassy opening.
“We come before you, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, thanking you for bringing us to this momentous occasion in the life of your people and in the history of our world,” Jeffress said on Monday.
Jeffress went on to praise the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Trump.
“We want to thank you for the tremendous leadership of our great president, Donald J. Trump. Without President Trump’s determination, resolve and courage we would not be here today,” he said.
“And I believe I speak for everyone of us when I say I thank you every day that you have given us a President who boldly stands on the right side of history but more importantly stands on the right side of you, O God, when it comes to Israel,” Jeffress added.
Jeffress, a Southern Baptist, vigorously supported Trump during the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign and was a member of his evangelical advisory board. He even preached at a private service for the President-elect and his family on Inauguration Day in 2017, shortly before Trump took the oath of office.
Despite Jeffress’ history of making contentious comments about various faith groups, the White House defended the decision to have him speak at the embassy opening, saying he has long-standing ties to US political figures.
“I think Pastor Jeffress has had a strong relationship with many people in the faith community,” deputy press secretary Raj Shah said during Monday’s White House briefing.
“He has a long-standing involvement with public officials,” he said.
Shah also said he was not sure who had selected Jeffress to speak.
The embassy’s relocation formally breaks from decades of established American policy and international practice in a move US officials say will create greater regional stability. Critics, however, say the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital could make a region already struggling with four ongoing conflicts all the more combustible. And they argue it marks the end of the US role as an “honest broker” in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
The move of the embassy to the city is contentious for Palestinians, who hope to claim part of the city as their future capital, and for many in the Arab world, as it is home to some of the holiest sites in Islam, as well as those of Judaism and Christianity.
Hagee’s comments resurface during 2008 presidential campaign
Hagee’s positive comments about Trump’s decision echo those of other evangelical Christians, who hailed his announcement in December that the United States would now recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. It was a promise Trump repeatedly made to his conservative Christian base. About 80% of white evangelicals (usually among the strongest American supporters of Israel), voted for Trump in 2016, according to exit polls.
Hagee, whose group is dedicated to organizing pro-Israel Christians in the United States into a unified voice, has had relationships with Israeli prime ministers dating back years. But he came under the national political spotlight in 2008 for comments that prompted then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain to reject his endorsement.
During the campaign, audio from one of Hagee’s sermons in the 1990s was leaked that seemed to suggest that Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling God’s will by aiding the desire of Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy.
“God says in Jeremiah 16: ‘Behold, I will bring them the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave to their fathers. … Behold, I will send for many fishers, and after will I send for many hunters,’” Hagee said, according to a transcript of his sermon. “‘And they the hunters shall hunt them.’ That would be the Jews. … Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter.”
In a statement at the time, McCain said, “Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Rev. Hagee’s endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well.”
Shortly after McCain’s announcement, Hagee withdrew his endorsement, citing critics who had been “grossly misrepresenting” his positions.
“I am tired of these baseless attacks and fear that they have become a distraction in what should be a national debate about important issues,” he said in a statement. “I have therefore decided to withdraw my endorsement of Sen. McCain for president effective today, and to remove myself from any active role in the 2008 campaign.”
Hagee also has said that “to assert that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the biggest and ugliest of lies. I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms.”
A spokesman for Hagee’s group, Ari Morgenstern, told CNN that the pastor gave the sermon based on the writings of a Jewish theologian, Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal. Teichtal, who was imprisoned by the Nazis, wrote that the afflictions that were befalling the Jewish population of Europe during World War II were meant to spur a return by Jews to the Holy Land.
Jeffress’ comments on Mormonism and Islam
Some might remember Jeffress for his frequent condemnations of Mormonism as a “cult” during the 2012 presidential campaign and his urging of Christians not to vote for Mitt Romney, a Mormon, during the Republican primary.
But Jeffress has also called Islam and Mormonism heresies “from the pit of hell,” suggested that the Catholic Church was led astray by Satan, accused then-President Barack Obama of “paving the way” for the Antichrist and spread false statistics about the prevalence of HIV among gays, who he said live a “miserable” and “filthy” lifestyle.
In recent years, Jeffress has frequently denounced Islam, calling it an “evil religion” that “promotes pedophilia” because the Prophet Mohammed married a 9-year-old girl. (Many modern Muslim scholars disagree about her age.) The pastor has also said that Mormons, Muslims and Hindus “worship a false god.”
Late Sunday evening, Romney tweeted that Jeffress is “a bigot” and shouldn’t “be giving the prayer that opens up” the embassy.
About an hour later Jeffress responded, saying “Historic Christianity has taught for 2,000 years that salvation is through faith in Christ alone. The fact that I, along with tens of millions of evangelical Christians around the world, continue to espouse that belief, is neither bigoted nor newsworthy.”
Jeffress spoke with Fox News Radio about his participation in the embassy opening.
“In that prayer, I’m going to be recounting God’s history of faithfulness to his people, the Israelites,” he said. “I’m going to be thanking God for the strong leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is absolutely determined to protect Israel. And I’m also going to be thanking God for our President Donald Trump, who had the courage to do what no other US President has done, and that is to officially recognize Jerusalem and to move the embassy. This is another example of promise made, promise kept.”
CNN’s Zachary Cohen, Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott contributed to this report.