Washington (AFP) – A Christian minister who has disparaged Jews, Muslims and gays faced criticism as US President Donald Trump’s administration invited him to lead a prayer Monday at the inauguration of the US embassy in Jerusalem.
Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist preacher in Dallas, Texas, has been a staunch Trump supporter since the billionaire businessman’s 2016 campaign.
But his past comments, in which he has said Jews will suffer for eternity in hell, were being seen as a rather extraordinary position for someone offering such a public prayer in the Jewish state.
The 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is Mormon, expressed his opposition to Jeffress addressing the embassy ceremony.
“Robert Jeffress says ‘you can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell.’ He’s said the same about Islam,” Romney, who is currently a candidate for US Senate, said late Sunday on Twitter.
“Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”
Jeffress responded with a tweet of his own, saying “historic Christianity has taught for 2,000 years that salvation is through faith in Christ alone,” and that such a position, embraced by millions of evangelical Christians, “is neither bigoted nor newsworthy.”
The White House on Monday sought to distance itself from the pastor, with spokesman Raj Shah saying he did not know who invited Jeffress to give an embassy blessing.
Asked directly about Jeffress’s past statements, Shah said “I haven’t seen those remarks, but obviously those aren’t remarks that the president agrees with.”
Jeffress campaigned with Trump in 2016 and his influence was key to Trump winning an overwhelming majority of the evangelical vote. Last October the president called Jeffress a “wonderful man.”
Several offending Jeffress comments — including his declaration that homosexuality is a “perversion” — come from a 2010 interview to a religious broadcaster.
On Monday Jeffress steered clear of such language, but he offered full-throated praise of Trump.
“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, O God, when it comes to Israel.”
Jeffress was not the only controversial figure to address the embassy event.
Another pastor who offered prayers was John Hagee, a mega-church leader who once said Adolf Hitler was sent by God to hasten the desire of Jews to return to Israel.