JERUSALEM - Leaders of Christian Zionist ministries were invited on Tuesday to the inaugural meeting of the new Knesset Christian Allies' Caucus to launch what co-chairman Dr. Yuri Shtern termed a "political upgrade" of relations between Israel and its Christian supporters across the globe.
The historic moment, the first time the Knesset as an institution has officially acknowledged and engaged with the growing Christian pro-Israel movement worldwide, featured not only many warm mutual greetings, but some rare and unusually frank exchanges as well.
In one instance the co-chair of the newly formed caucus, MK Yair Peretz of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who represents a segment of society that maintains little contact with Christians, made a sincere appeal for Christian assistance to help Israel meet the needs of its poorest communities during these tough times. Peretz suggested that due to the nation's budget constraints, Christians could perhaps distribute Passover baskets to needy secular families this spring and school bag kits to underprivileged children at the start of classes next fall.
Meantime, Gadi Golan of the Foreign Ministry's religious affairs department delivered an impassioned plea that the Israeli government across the board should stop overlooking their Christian friends and especially that they should cease "humiliating" Christians in the land with visa and tax problems.
"As Israelis, we should know the terrible mistakes we have committed, and yet these beautiful people keep going on quietly with their many kind works among us," said Golan.
The Knesset Christian Allies' Caucus is the outgrowth of an idea that had been brewing over recent years among Israeli lawmakers, particularly after broad segments of Christianity aligned to stop the construction of a provocative mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. But through MK Shtern's efforts, the caucus was rushed into being in recent weeks after a number of Christian expatriates residing in Israel ran into difficulties renewing visas in the second half of 2003.
Shtern apologized for the visa situation, citing last autumn's long civil servants' strike and Israel's restrictive policies in dealing with security concerns and illegal workers. "We have to and will keep working on it, however" insisted Shtern.
Most Christian ministries present reported progress in the processing of visas and thanked the Knesset members for their recent intervention with Ministry of Interior officials.
Clarence Wagner, International Director of Bridges for Peace, noted that scores of Christians abroad had contacted his offices welcoming the formation of the Knesset caucus earlier this month. "There was an amazing response," he said. "The phones were ringing off the hook."
"We too were surprised by the enthusiastic response to the announcement of this Knesset caucus," concurred Malcolm Hedding, Executive Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. "I can assure you that the eyes of the Christian Zionist world are upon what you are launching here today, and therefore it must not fail. This forum must be a pro-active mechanism for developing better ties between Christians and the Jewish state and community worldwide."
In an attempt to broaden the effectiveness of the informal committee, Shtern (of the right-wing National Union) and Peretz selected six other Knesset members from an array of factions to join the caucus, including Chemi Doron of Shinui, Gila Gamliel and Gilad Eran of the ruling Likud party, Gila Finkelstein of NRP, Arieh Eldan of the National Union, and Isaac Herzog of Labor.
"We will not be demanding that Christians adopt any particular political viewpoint on the conflict here," said Shtern in clarifying the goals of the caucus. "We simply are reaching out to Christians to support Israel on the basis of our fundamental right to live here in peace and security."
In a statement, the caucus members said they would seek to (1) recognize and further mobilize those Christians around the world who are contributing to the security of the State of Israel and the welfare of the Jewish people; (2) bring to the attention of the Israeli public the unqualified support Christians are giving to Jewish aspirations in the Land of Israel; and (3) provide Christian and Israeli leaders with a Knesset forum for face-to-face encounters and enhanced co-operation.
Among the organizations represented at the launch of the caucus were the ICEJ, Bridges for Peace, Christian Friends of Israel, The Ebenezer Fund, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the National Unity Coalition and the Jerusalem Summit.
Over recent decades, the Christian groups represented have been working to build political and moral support for Israel in national and international arenas, to assist and encourage Jews making Aliyah, and to provide social and material assistance to poor and needy communities in Israel and Palestinian areas.
The caucus members said they would now begin to develop joint welfare projects with the participating Christian Allies that could be given high-profile launches from the Knesset itself, while also enlisting Christian support for new informational efforts to improve Israel's standing internationally, with an urgent need to focus on Europe.