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Israel to US Christians: We Will Press Iran on Rights, Syria

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses a conference of Christians United for Israel via video link, in Washington, D.C., July 23, 2018.

Israeli officials speaking to a U.S. conference of pro-Israel Christian activists have vowed to keep pressuring Iran to stop perceived human rights abuses and to withdraw military forces from Syria.

The tough stances of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, drew cheers and applause from the thousands of evangelical Christians attending Monday’s gathering in Washington.

The two-day event that ends Tuesday is the 13th annual conference of Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which calls itself the largest pro-Israel U.S. advocacy group with millions of supporters.

Speaking to attendees via satellite, Netanyahu addressed one of their concerns – the fate of the Middle East’s minority Christians, who have been fleeing the region in recent years to escape violence and harassment.

Netanyahu said Christians have been “brutally” persecuted in Iran. Christians are a recognized religious minority under Iran’s Islamist constitution. But, the U.S. State Department’s latest report on International Religious Freedom said Iran has restricted various Christian practices and sentenced several Christian converts to 10 years in prison for their religious activities.

“Let me say clearly: Israel stands in complete solidarity with persecuted Christians in Iran,” Netanyahu said. “And I ask: Why are so many people silent as Christians are jailed … in Iran? Well, I can say this: We in Israel will not be silent, and I will continue to raise the plight of the long-suffering Iranian people – Christians, Baha’is, students and journalists.”

Israeli Ambassador Dermer told the conference that Israel also will increase pressure on Iran to back down from its nuclear ambitions and involvement in regional conflicts.

“For our part, Israel will continue to confront Iran,” Dermer said. “We will act to prevent Iran from establishing military bases in Syria, from transferring game changing weapons to Hezbollah and from manufacturing precision guided weapons in either Syria or Lebanon.”

CUFI’s founder and chairman Pastor John Hagee, who leads a megachurch in San Antonio, Texas, said his followers will urge the administration of President Donald Trump and U.S. lawmakers to support the Israeli strategy of confronting Iran.

Hagee also had a message for Iranians. “To the young people of Iran, who are protesting its rogue regime and its practices, CUFI stands with you tonight,” he said. “You deserve a bright and predictable future, you deserve fair and free elections, and you deserve better than the iron-fisted dictators that have enslaved your nation. Previous administrations have not heard you. We hear you, loud and clear.”

Representing the Trump administration at the conference, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley drew the loudest cheers of the evening for her record of defending Israel from its many critics at the world body.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley addresses a conference of Christians United for Israel, in Washington, D.C., July 23, 2018.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley addresses a conference of Christians United for Israel, in Washington, D.C., July 23, 2018.

“Our demand for fairness for Israel is actually a demand for peace,” Haley said. “The U.N.’s bias against Israel has long undermined peace by encouraging an illusion that Israel will just go away. Israel is not going to go away. When the world recognizes that, then peace becomes possible. It becomes possible because all sides will be dealing with realities, not fantasies.”

Haley did not mention Iran by name in her speech, but the Islamic republic is the only nation whose leaders repeatedly have called for and predicted Israel’s downfall.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service.