Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, which just happens to be the last day of Hannukah – a holiday that celebrates religious freedom.
Religious freedom – overcoming religious oppression, particularly the persecution of Christians in the Islamic Middle East – is one of the two priority issues the vice president will discuss at meetings in the region. The other is security, and the fight against radicalism.
Globally, the persecution of Christians is on the rise, according to Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List report. Unspeakable ISIS atrocities in Syria and Iraq have been called genocide by both the Obama and the Trump administrations.
The latest incident of religious oppression in the region took place in Iran. Last week, Persian media reported the arrest of four Iranian converts to Christianity. Two weeks before Christmas, Iranian security forces raided six houses the converts used as home churches, detained four and dragged them away. They were engaged in a “Christian ceremony” prior to the arrest, according to Radio Farda, the Iranian branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
The vice president’s focus on this issue could not be more urgent.
Ironically, Mike Pence himself, a devout Christian, will have his own religious freedom restricted during his visit. He will be prevented from visiting Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity by the Palestinians who are displeased with U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “The Palestinian position is clear: the vice president is not welcome here and there will be no meeting with him, after Trump’s decision,” said Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s policy-making executive committee.
The Palestinians feel free to snub the vice president of the United States, a country that gives them enormous sums of aid dollars. Between financial assistance to Ramallah and contributions to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), the U.S. gave $712 million in aid to Palestinians in 2016, and is the world’s largest supplier of such aid.
By choosing politics over religious freedom, spite over hospitality, entitlement over graciousness … by making Mr. Pence unwelcome in Bethlehem in the Christmas season, the PLO has demonstrated the truth of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s position, that only Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem can ensure freedom of access to the city’s holy sites, sacred to Jews, Christian and Muslims.
Freedom to practice one’s faith and honor one’s tradition is a pillar of human dignity. Let us hope that Mr. Pence’s visit will be a step toward guaranteeing that dignity to Christians in the Islamic Middle East and beyond.