Evangelical leaders including a former ethics professor at a Southern Baptist seminary issued an open letter to President Bush challenging the notion that all American evangelicals are uncritically pro-Israel.

Signed by leaders including Glen Harold Stassen, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary who formerly taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the letter addresses a “serious misperception” that American evangelicals oppose a two-state solution in the Middle East and a new Palestinian state that would include the majority of the West Bank.

The letter, addressed to the president but also aimed at other U.S. policy makers, came a week-and-a-half after a second-annual gathering of Christians United For Israel convened by San Antonio, Texas, preacher John Hagee. The meeting brought 3,500 evangelicals to Washington to hear from politicians including Sen. Joseph Lieberman, House Minority Whip and Southern Baptist Roy Blunt and Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain.

At the gathering, Hagee labeled former President Jimmy Carter Israel’s “enemy in America” and demanded the former president reveal sources of pro-Arab funding for his humanitarian CarterCenter. Carter’s recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid drew criticism from Jewish groups alleging it was biased against Israel.

After the conference, attendees fanned out to visit their representatives on Capitol Hill. A report on Hagee’s Web site said Texas senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey-Hutchinson were amazed when more than 600 delegates from their state showed up to meet with them on the Capitol steps.

Hagee, who has been to Israel 22 times and met with every Israeli prime minister since Menachem Begin, opposes President Bush’s “Roadmap for Peace” and any other plan that cedes land from Israel.

Last week’s letter from evangelical leaders including Evangelicals for Social Action President Ron Sider, Baptist activist and author Tony Campolo, Fuller Theological Seminary President Richard Mouw and Christianity Today Editor David Neff, recognized the biblical promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you.”

“And precisely as evangelical Christians committed to the full teaching of the Scriptures, we know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present State of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted,” the signers said.

“Genuine love and genuine blessing means acting in ways that promote the genuine and long-term well being of our neighbors,” they said. “Perhaps the best way we can bless Israel is to encourage her to remember, as she deals with her neighbor Palestinians, the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully as an inestimably precious gift to the whole world.”

“Historical honesty compels us to recognize that both Israelis and Palestinians have legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine,” the leaders said. “Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other. The only way to bring the tragic cycle of violence to an end is for Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a just, lasting agreement that guarantees both sides viable, independent, secure states.”

To achieve that goal, the evangelical leaders said: “Both sides must give up some of their competing, incompatible claims. Israelis and Palestinians must both accept each other’s right to exist.”

The ministers asked for a meeting with President Bush to “personally convey our support and discuss other ways in which we may help your administration on this crucial issue.”

Hagee and his followers believe God’s promises in the Old Testament to possess the land apply to the modern political state of Israel. They also believe the restoration of Israel is a pivotal event in Bible prophecy forecasting the Rapture and Second Coming of Christ.

Media reports from this year’s CUFI annual conference suggest major speeches downplayed end-times theology, but Max Blumenthal, a blogger who has covered the Christian right for more than four years, said he has “never witnessed any spectacle as politically extreme, outrageous or bizarre” as this year’s Christians United for Israel in Washington. A 10-minute video at HuffingtonPost.com shows him being escorted out after interviewing attendees behind the scenes and asking Hagee hard questions at a press conference.

Sider told the New York Times he and three other evangelical leaders got the idea for the letter in February at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, where they met Muslim and American diplomats who were shocked to discover the existence of American evangelicals who favored a Palestinian state.

EthicsDaily.com has carried articles quoting Lebanese Baptist scholar Martin Accad warning American Christians about political bias in interpreting Scripture and about a book by American Baptist scholar LeAnn Snow Flesher challenging theology underpinning the popular “Left Behind” novels that she says perpetuate a massive misunderstanding of what the Bible says and means.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com

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