The religious leader invited to give the opening prayer at the dedication of the American Embassy in Jerusalem is an evangelical Christian who once said that Judaism, along with Mormonism, Islam and Hinduism, is one of the religions "that lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell."
Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, has come under intense criticism for those comments, but he was also one of Donald Trump's earliest and most enthusiastic Christian supporters. In his prayer, while thanking God for protecting Israel, Jeffress managed to shower praise on the president.
"We want to thank you for the tremendous leadership of our great president, Donald J. Trump," Jeffress said. "Without President Trump's determination, resolve and courage, we would not be here today."
Jeffress is also a passionate supporter of the State of Israel, but in choosing him to give the opening prayer at the embassy, the Trump administration offended some who otherwise applauded the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
Mitt Romney, the former Republican presidential candidate, blasted Jeffress on Sunday in a tweet.
"Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem," Romney wrote.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has long advocated moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, weighed in with similar criticism.
"We are disappointed by the selection of Pastor Robert Jeffress to offer a prayer at the historic dedication of the American Embassy in Jerusalem," the ADL said Monday in a statement. "Jeffress is an unrepentant religious bigot who has a history of making hateful comments," the ADL said.
"This is a moment when we should be trying to send out a message of hope, of peace and of inclusion, and that's not the message that many people associate with Pastor Jeffress," said Rabbi David Sandmel, the ADL's director of inter-religious engagement.
Appearing on the "Fox and Friends" television program on Monday morning, Jeffress said remarks he has made in the past about Jews and others not going to heaven merely reflect Christian doctrine.
"Historic Christianity for 2,000 years has taught that salvation is through faith in Christ alone," he said. "The fact that I and tens of millions of evangelical Christians still believe that is not bigoted, and it's not newsworthy."
A White House spokesman, Raj Shah, noted that Jeffress has had "strong relationships with many people in the faith community, as well as folks in the [Trump] administration and Republicans on [Capitol] Hill, Democrats as well."
But at least one Republican congressman objected to the invitations to Jeffress and to John Hagee, another evangelical Christian pastor, who gave the benediction at the embassy ceremony.
"If it were me, it would be a radically different panel," said Rep. Francis Rooney of Florida, in an interview on CNN. Rooney, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush, objected in particular to past comments by both Jeffress and Hagee that were critical of the Roman Catholic Church.
"I would rather have had a balanced scorecard," Rooney said. "It would have suited me to have had as broad a list of ecumenical speakers and participants as they could get."
A State Department official, speaking on background, noted that Jerusalem "is a holy city for millions of people around the world. We sought to reflect that in this event."
The Israeli government apparently had no objection to the role of Pastors Jeffress and Hagee at the embassy opening.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at the ceremony, quoted Zechariah 8:3, in which God promises "to return to Zion and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem."
The Book of Zechariah happens to be a favorite of those Christians whose support for the State of Israel is based on a belief that the Bible prophesizes that when Jesus Christ returns to earth, it will be in Jerusalem.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's no coincidence that the official opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem came 70 years to the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. The country's founding 1948 document made no mention of God. Israel was established largely as a secular state. By contrast, today's U.S. Embassy opening was full of religious references, notably with an emphasis on evangelical Christianity. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The invitation to give the opening prayer at the embassy opening in Jerusalem went to Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. There may be no Christian pastor more enthusiastic in his support for Donald Trump. And that came through in Jeffress' prayer to God.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROBERT JEFFRESS: We thank you every day that you have given us a president who boldly stands on the right side of history but more importantly stands on the right side of you, oh, God, when it comes to Israel.
GJELTEN: Though he was surrounded by Jewish religious leaders, Jeffress closed his prayer invoking his Christian faith.
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JEFFRESS: And we pray this in the name and the spirit of the Prince of Peace, Jesus our Lord. Amen.
GJELTEN: Jeffress is a fervent political supporter of Israel, though from a narrow Christian perspective. In 2010, he said that Judaism, along with Mormonism, Islam and Hinduism were religions, quote, "that lead people to an eternity of separation from God in hell." Given such remarks, the choice of Jeffress to lead the prayer this day struck some as inappropriate.
In a tweet, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney said, such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem. Asked about that tweet this morning on the "Fox & Friends" TV show, Jeffress said the things he's quoted as having said about Jews and others not going to heaven only reflect Christian teaching.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX & FRIENDS")
JEFFRESS: Historic Christianity for 2000 years has taught that salvation is through faith in Christ alone. And the fact that I and tens of millions of evangelical Christians still believe that is not bigoted and it's not newsworthy.
GJELTEN: A State Department official today defended the choice of Jeffress to pray at the embassy saying, Jerusalem is a holy city for millions of people around the world. We sought to reflect that in this event, the official said. Even among some who strongly supported the embassy move to Jerusalem, however, the Jeffress choice did not go over well.
Rabbi David Sandmel directs interreligious engagement at the Anti-Defamation League.
DAVID SANDMEL: This is a moment where we should be trying to send out a message of hope, of peace and of inclusion. And that's not the message that I think many people associate with Pastor Jeffress.
GJELTEN: The benediction today was given by another evangelical Christian Pastor John Hagee. He's long-known for his support of Israel. But Hagee in the past has made comments critical of Catholicism. Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Florida, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said in an interview on CNN that he'd have asked a radically different pair of religious leaders to speak at the embassy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FRANCIS ROONEY: I would have rather had a balanced scorecard. It would have suited me to have as broad of an ecumenical list of speakers and participants as they could get.
GJELTEN: A White House spokesman today said the invitation to Pastor Jeffress reflected his strong relationship with many in the faith community. The Israeli government apparently had no objection. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the embassy quoted the Book of Zechariah where God promises to return to Zion and dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.
As it happens, Zechariah is a favorite of Christians whose support for Israel is based on a belief the Bible prophesizes that when Jesus Christ comes back to earth, it will be in Jerusalem. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.