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BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Palestinian Christians say U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's brand of evangelical Christianity, with its fervent embrace of modern-day Israel as fulfilment of biblical prophecy, lacks their faith's compassion and justice, including for those who have endured half a century of Israeli occupation.
Pence was in Jerusalem on Monday, expressing his full-throated support for Israel in a speech to parliament filled with biblical references. During an exuberant welcome, Pence and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejoiced in the Trump administration's decision last month to recognize contested Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
The dramatic policy shift is seen as a betrayal by the Palestinians, who claim Jerusalem's Israeli-annexed eastern sector as a capital and now reject U.S. mediation in any future efforts to resolve their long-running conflict with Israel. The Jerusalem pivot also upset some of Washington's Arab allies, particularly Jordan, where King Abdullah II laid out his disagreement with U.S. policy to the visiting Pence in unusually pointed remarks Sunday.
The Jerusalem declaration and a subsequent Trump decision to curb aid to Palestinian refugees — both aligned with the Netanyahu government's agenda — had been top priorities for Pence.
The vice president — by his own definition "a Christian, a conservative, a Republican, in that order" — has cited his religious beliefs as the source of his unwavering support of Israel.
He has been embraced by so-called Christian Zionists who believe the establishment of the state of Israel is proof of God keeping his promises and a step toward the second coming of Christ.
In a 2017 speech to Christians United for Israel, or CUFI, an influential organization run by Texas pastor John Hagee, Pence signaled similar views, saying that "though Israel was built by human hands, it is impossible not to sense that just beneath its history lies the hand of heaven."
Critics say Jewish supporters of Christian Zionists and their pro-Israel fundraising juggernaut conveniently overlook violent end-time prophecies that are espoused by some and are based on the belief that only those who embrace Jesus will be saved.
David Parsons, a spokesman for Christian Zionism's International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, said it's a big tent movement with different views on end-time prophecy.
In his CUFI speech, Pence stuck to what the vice president portrayed as biblically mandated support for Israel.
Pence has "very solid evangelical credentials," Parsons said. "We consider him to be ... in our camp."
Palestinian Christians, many with deep roots in the Holy Land, consider Christian Zionist views as a negation of the teachings of Jesus on justice and compassion for all of humanity. They argue that such streams of evangelical Christianity have used religion to whitewash Israel's harsh policies during its half-century-old rule over millions of Palestinians.
"For me, it's a sick ideology," said Munib Younan, the recently retired bishop of the small Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and former president of the Lutheran World Federation, an umbrella for churches with millions of believers.
"When I say Jesus is love, they want my Jesus to be a political Jesus," Younan, 67, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian, said in a recent interview at his West Bank church.
Younan said he supports a just solution to the conflict with Israel, including the establishment of a Palestinian state in the lands Israel captured in 1967 — east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Jerusalem should be shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews, he said, adding that a peace deal would enhance Israel's security.
Pence on Monday portrayed the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as the "only true foundation for a just and lasting peace," but omitted any mention of Palestinian claims to the city. He also gave less than full support to a two-state solution, once a pillar of U.S, Mideast policy, saying President Donald Trump is in favor "if both sides agree."
In biblical Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Mayor Anton Salman said Pence's comments contradict his declared aim of helping Christians in the Middle East.
"He would need to change his thoughts and behavior ... and recognize the rights of Arab Palestinian Christians who are the people of this land, to support their rights to have their independence, their freedom and east Jerusalem as our capital," said Salman, a Roman Catholic.
Christians make up a small minority of the overwhelmingly Muslim Palestinian population in the West Bank, but relations between the two religious groups are typically cordial and tolerant — unlike in conflict-battered Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State extremists have persecuted Christians. In Gaza, dominated by the Islamic militant group Hamas, a tiny Christian community has been targeted from time to time by zealots.
"We are the authentic Christians and we live with our brothers, the Muslims, without any problem," said Bethlehem Christian Nadia Hazboun, 55, standing outside a souvenir shop in Manger Square, where the pealing of church bells often blends with the Muslim call to prayer. On Saturday, a towering Christmas tree decorated with large red balls was still up in the square, near the entrance to the Church of the Nativity, the basilica built over Jesus' traditional birth grotto.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a hot button issue for U.S. Christians, pitting Christian Zionists again those calling for an end to Israel's occupation or expressing support for a Palestinian-led campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions as a means of pressuring Israel.
Rebecca Littlejohn, a Disciples of Christ pastor from La Mesa, California, contemplated the debate while sipping hot lemon in a coffee shop off Manger Square, at the end of a Holy Land study tour during which her group met Israelis and Palestinians.
Littlejohn said her denomination works with Palestinian Christians and that she belongs to a grass-roots group engaged in peace efforts.
She said that while Disciples of Christ emphasizes Christian unity, "I find very little, from what I know of it, in Mike Pence's religion that looks like Christianity to me."
"But am I going to say, he is not welcome at the table?" she said. "No, I'm not going to say that because it's not up to me."
Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.