ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Against the backdrop of the first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula is an interfaith conference that includes prominent US rabbis and Christian evangelicals, who are seeking stronger recognition of Israel through closer ties with Muslim figures and Arab leaders.
These merged interests come as Arab leaders look to strengthen ties with the Trump administration through his evangelical base of supporters. It’s also happening as Gulf Arab states take their once-private outreach to Israel more publicly in the absence of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, who founded The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York, is at the forefront of building ties between Jews and Muslims in the US and the Middle East. Through greater interreligious dialogue, he’s pushed for closer relations between Muslim leaders and the state of Israel.
“I think there is a very, very keen interest in bringing Islam and Judaism together, but our role as Jewish leaders — we also need to sensitize and educate and expose both Gulf leaders and Muslim interfaith leaders to the fact that Israel again is not a political dimension for the Jewish people; it’s at the very core of our religion,” he told The Associated Press in an interview on the sidelines of Pope Francis’ visit to the United Arab Emirates.
Schneier has carved a foothold in the region to deliver that message. The king of Bahrain has appointed him as a special adviser and he’s been hosted by Qatar’s ruler in Doha. He also has links to Saudi Arabia’s interfaith center in Vienna and has been invited to Saudi Arabia to meet the crown prince.
He even boasts that he has helped ensure kosher hot dogs will be available to soccer fans attending the World Cup in 2022 in Qatar.
Over the weekend, he delivered a sermon to a congregation of expatriate Jews in an unmarked synagogue in Dubai — a move that not only underlined growing acceptance and recognition of Jewish life in Gulf Arab states but also of the warming of ties between these nations and Israel.
“I remember when I first entered the fray here in the Gulf, there was a tendency to bifurcate Israel and Judaism, to break out Israel from Judaism,” Schneier said, explaining that he used to hear people in the region say: “We have nothing against Jews. It’s Israelis and Zionists that we have a problem with.”
“I no longer hear that rhetoric. It’s no longer part of the conversation,” he said.
The synagogue, which has existed for a decade in the Emirate with the quiet support of the country’s rulers, stepped gingerly out of the shadows last year with media profiles in The Times of Israel and Bloomberg News.
The decision to open up reflected the community’s growing comfort in the desert kingdom, which has to a large degree staked its future on projecting itself as a bastion of tolerance.
“It’s to the credit of the rulers that they have allowed and in some ways encouraged the Jewish presence there,” businessman Eli Epstein told The Times of Israel recently. Epstein, who has donated a Torah scroll to the synagogue, has a close business relationship with powerful UAE developer Mohamed Alabbar.
For Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, which still feel stung from the 2015 nuclear deal with rival Iran that was struck by then-US President Barack Obama and other world leaders, building ties with the Trump administration and Israel are seen as ways to counter Tehran’s footprint in regional conflicts.
For Qatar, which has hosted Hamas leaders over the years, welcoming pro-Israel figures from the US for conversations with the ruling emir appear to be driven by an effort to maneuver politically within Washington lobbying circles in the face of a blockade by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain.
For some US evangelicals, support for Israel is at the very core of their faith. Most believe that before Jesus can return, Jews have to go back to the Holy Land. They also believe the return of the Messiah will follow the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem on the Temple Mount, also the site of Islam’s sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
The Rev. Bob Roberts, who leads a congregation of about 1,200 people in Texas and works on interfaith outreach with Muslims, said he believes this theology is “very unhealthy” and also harmful to Palestinians.
“Very few agree on exactly how Jesus is coming back, so it’s all a guess. But we’re letting that drive our foreign policy, which drives things like war and conflict. That’s very serious,” he said, speaking on the sidelines of an interreligious conference in Abu Dhabi.
Roberts acknowledges that although he’s a supporter of Israel, he remains in the minority among Christian evangelicals in the United States.
The month after Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed by agents close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey, a delegation of top Christian evangelicals, including American-Christian Zionist leaders, traveled to Riyadh to meet the crown prince — the first-ever meeting of its kind.
The timing of this outreach was especially crucial for the crown prince, who faces fierce bipartisan criticism in the US over the killing, despite denials by the kingdom that he had any involvement.
The delegation to Riyadh was led by Israel-based communications strategist Joel Rosenberg and included former Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann; Jerry Johnson, the president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters; and Michael Little, former president and COO of The Christian Broadcasting Network, among others.
CBN described it as a meeting “filled with both political controversy and spiritual opportunity.”
The group issued a statement after the meeting saying they were “encouraged by the candor of the two-hour conversation” and were looking forward to continuing the dialogue.
The Riyadh meeting came about after the crown prince had met with top Jewish American leaders in the US in April. He’d also been quoted speaking about Israelis’ “right to have their own land” during his tour of major US cities.
Just before their Saudi stop, the evangelicals were in Abu Dhabi meeting with its crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. They’d previously already met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Roberts notes that while some evangelicals are reaching out to Muslim leaders in the Gulf, there’s a major challenge with Islamophobia in the US, particularly among evangelicals.
“I think it’s fine for evangelicals to be connected with Muslims in the Middle East. I am. But I’m also connected with the ones right in my own backyard — the imam down the street, the rabbi down the street,” he said.