NEW YORK – As Israelis and Palestinians take faltering steps toward ending violence in the Mideast, Christian groups watching from the United States have adopted sharply different stances on the peace plan backed by President Bush.
The majority of churches -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant and some evangelical groups -- generally welcome the three-step plan called the "road map," which envisions the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.
President Bush was to host Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (search) on Friday to discuss the initiative, and is to meet Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
A vocal segment of evangelical Protestants, however, are lobbying the Bush administration to abandon the peace plan because they believe it rewards terrorism, and violates God's promise in Genesis (search) to give the Jewish people the historic land of Israel.
So-called Christian Zionists (search) also see the modern state of Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy -- and a precondition of the second coming of Jesus Christ. Setting up a Palestinian state is seen as undermining these end times events.
"Because of their apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible, they view the initiative as a betrayal," said Randall Balmer, a religion professor at Columbia University. "They've threatened to derail the whole thing."
Gary Bauer, a former Republican presidential candidate and an evangelical Christian, is spearheading a "one-state solution campaign" with a group called Americans for a Safe Israel (search), which is erecting billboards and distributing bumper stickers emblazoned with a verse from Genesis: "And the Lord said to Jacob...'Unto thy offspring will I give this land."'
Another group, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities (search), last year donated $200,000 from U.S. churches to help build Jewish settlements in "Judea and Samaria" -- the biblical name for the West Bank.
"Judea and Samaria were given to the Jews by God, and I cannot see the United States of America taking this land and giving it to a known terrorist," said religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, referring to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Such views, heard widely on Christian radio and television -- and increasingly picked up in the Muslim media -- are harshly criticized as counterproductive and theologically misguided by most other American Christian groups, including a significant number of evangelicals.
"Christian Zionists have turned their biblical interpretation into a political ideology that is aligning itself with the most extreme forms of Zionism in Sharon's own coalition," said Donald Wagner, religion professor at North Park University in Chicago and a co-founder of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding (search).
Gerard Powers, director of the international justice and peace office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, agreed the Christian Zionist view is too one-sided. "You have to try to understand the legitimate aspirations of both sides," he said.
Others say Christian Zionists are ignoring the suffering of Palestinian Christians, whose roots in the area go back to the early church.
Bauer, president of American Values (search), a conservative think tank, counters that a Palestinian state "will be used as a launching pad for more terrorist attacks against Israel."
Christian Zionism is based on a theology called dispensationalism that emphasizes a literal reading of prophetic and apocalyptic passages in the Bible. Dispensationalists believe that the regathering of the Jewish people in Israel is foretold in Scripture, and that Israel will play a key role in end times events.
This theology -- popularized in the "Left Behind" novels -- is embraced by about a quarter to a third evangelical Protestants in this country, or as many as 17 million Americans, estimates Timothy Weber, a church historian and president of Memphis Theological Seminary.
By pushing the Mideast initiative, Bush risks alienating these evangelical voters.
Yet the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who in the past opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, now says he is willing to accept one with reservations -- but only because Bush is behind the plan.
"I love and trust President Bush so much, I will go with him almost anywhere," said Falwell, the well-known televangelist.
Activism from churches supporting the peace plan -- modest until now -- has intensified, partly in reaction to the anti-road map efforts.
Churches for Mideast Peace, a coalition of 18 mainline Protestant and Catholic groups, has been sending out e-mail alerts to 4,000 grass-roots organizers, urging them to contact their congressional representatives to back the road map.
Corinne Whitlach, the coalition's director, sees one of the group's jobs as "tempering the extremists" -- although some Jewish and evangelical groups consider it to be biased toward the Palestinians.
"We recognize there are wide differences in interpreting theology," Whitlach said. "But when interpretation thwarts peacemaking, we need to challenge that."