An American evangelical pastor and his wife who have lived in Israel for nearly two decades were told to leave the country over suspicion of mission activities, officials said Thursday.
The couple – Ron Cantrell, 59, and Carol Cantrell, 54 – was told that they have two weeks to leave after their application for permanent residency was rejected, according to The Jerusalem Post.
Interior Ministry officials say the decision resulted from suspicion that Cantrell was participating in missionary work – which Israel bans. However, the pastor has denied the accusation.
Cantrell's case is being viewed by some observers as another example in a growing debate on whether Christians, especially evangelicals, should "blindly support" Israel despite the fact that it forbids Christians from evangelizing in the country.
Israel has often called evangelicals its best friend seeing that the born-again Christian group has arguably been the world's most vocal supporter of the state. Moreover, evangelicals compose one-third of American tourists to Israel – second only to American Jews.
"There is a part of the evangelical family, which is what I call Christian Zionists, who are just so staunchly pro-Israel that Israel and their side can do no wrong, and it's almost anti-biblical to criticize Israel for anything," said megachurch pastor Joel Hunter recently to the New York Times.
"But there are many more evangelicals who are really open and seek justice for both parties," he said referring his support of a new Palestinian state.
Award-winning talk show host Janet Parshall, a long-time supporter of Israel, said she realized that Christians "can't just blindly support Israel" after she heard that the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus does not associate with groups that share the Gospel.
"We have to able to tell them, as a friend, [that] you can't do that. You can't silence us," said Parshall, who still believes in the biblical mandate to protect and care for Israel.
In the case of the Cantrells, the couple has overseen a small Jerusalem-based ministry called Shalom Shalom Jerusalem for the past four years. Prior to Ron Cantrell's current ministry, he worked for the evangelical organization Bridges for Peace for 14 years.
Ron had a special clergy visa when he worked for Bridges for Peace but returned to a regular tourist visa after he stopped working for the ministry. The tourist visa requires that he renews it every three or six months.
The evangelical pastor said he could continue to live in Israel under the tourist visa because of his extensive traveling from speaking engagements, which would require him to leave the country at lease once every three months. But since the tourist visa would not be feasible for his wife, the Cantrells decided to apply for permanent residency.
Israeli officials, however, rejected the couple's application last month.
Two of the Cantrell's children, meanwhile, are married to Israelis and have Israeli ID cards, according to The Jerusalem Post.