(Photo: CUFI via YouTube)
Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians can practice their faith with complete freedom, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday during the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) 2012 conference in Jerusalem.
Americans and Israeli share "values that ensure that Israel's Christian population will always be free to practice their faith," Netanyahu said in his speech. "That's the only place in the Middle East where Christians are fully free to practice their faith. They don't have to fear. They don't have to flee." These values, which the prime minister said included a common biblical heritage and "revolutionary ideas," also assure that Israel's minorities, including Arabs and women, always have their civil rights.
"At a time when Christians are under siege in so many places, in so many lands in the Middle East, I'm proud that in Israel Christians are free to practice their faith. And to have a thriving Christian community in Israel," Netanyahu added.
Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States, celebrated gaining one million supporters Sunday. CUFI has been lobbying for support for Israel since 2006. The organization lists on its website that its number one goal is "to educate Christians about the Biblical and moral imperatives about supporting Israel."
Some 800 members listened to Netanyahu speak, including CUI leader John Hagee, pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.
Hagee, whose church boasts some 19,000 members, presented the prime minister with an honorary plaque.
"As you personally wrestle with the crisis in Iran," and despite the fact that "you have the future of the Jews in your hands... you are not alone," Hagee told Netanyahu.
"The Jewish people have a right to live in Israel," the Texas pastor further stated, as quoted by The Jerusalem Post, and added that "the modern state is the fulfillment of this historic right."
"We are witnessing a dramatic transformation in the relationship between Christians and Jews, who are focusing now on the common values and the common future we both share," said Prime Minister Netanyahu.
"I draw, like you, enormous reservoirs of strength, from the Torah, from the Bible," he said. "This is the well from which we drink, this is the stone on which we stand."
"These shared values bring America and Israel together," he added.
Netanyahu also noted that Muslims living in Israel can practice their fraith freely as well, saying, "I'm proud that in Israel Muslims are free to practice their religion."
Despite the prime minister's remarks Sunday, occasional acts of vandalization of churches have been known to occur in the country. In late February, for example, vandals sprayed anti-Christian graffiti on a Baptist church in Jerusalem. Churches used by Messianic Jews have also been targeted in the past.
Also, evangelical Christians have been a focus of controversy in Israel in recent years, especially in more conservative Jewish communities, as many Jews are resistant to allowing evangelizing in their country.
Most recently, dozens of Israeli mail carriers near Tel Aviv refused to deliver New Testament Bibles to residences, arguing that delivering the Bibles is forbidden according to their halacha laws, or the collective body of Jewish laws.
In 2007, Time magazine reported: "Never before in U.S. history had Jewish leaders shown such bold hostility toward Evangelical Christians." Fear of being proselytized is one of the main reasons, the report argued. However, evangelicals remain "the most philo-Semitic and pro-Israel" religious group in the United States.
According to some estimates, each year hundreds of thousands of Evangelical Christians visit Israel as tourists to be inspired by the land of the Bible.
In 2007, legislation was proposed that would ban preaching conversion in the country.
"Whether it's Christians coming from abroad or Jewish converts working in Israel, they all have the same agenda – to destroy every trace and memory of the people of Israel, and they plan to do this by converting Jews. These bodies are operating mainly among the Jewish population which is under physical, social and spiritual distress," the proposal, which did not pass, read.
According to a 2011 International Religious Freedom Report, "Proselytizing is legal in the country, and missionaries of all religious groups are allowed to proselytize all citizens."