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White House backs away from controversial religious leaders at embassy ceremonies

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Hours after the ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Monday, deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah faced questions about past comments made by three religious leaders with roles in the events — including one who is known for saying that Jews, presumably including most Israelis, are going to hell.

Shah said the comments were not “embraced” by the White House. But he refused to say how the three — two American Protestant pastors and the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel — came to participate in the embassy events.

At the daily White House briefing on Monday, Shah initially was asked about the Rev. Robert Jeffress, who leads the influential First Baptist Dallas and delivered the opening prayer at the embassy opening. Jeffress has a long history of controversial comments, including statements suggesting the Catholic Church is a “counterfeit religion” that is used by Satan and the comment that “religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism … lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell.”

Reporter Andrew Feinberg asked Shah how Jeffress was invited to participate in the embassy ceremony.

“I honestly don’t know how that came to be,” Shah said.

Shah, who said he hadn’t “seen” Jeffress’s remarks, emphasized the pastor’s extensive relationships in Washington.

White House principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington, Monday, May 14, 2018. Shah discussed the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, a White House aide who dismissed Sen. John McCain’s opposition on the president’s nominee to be CIA director, saying, “He’s dying anyway” and other topics. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“Pastor [Jeffress] has had a strong relationship with many people in the faith community, as well as folks in the administration, and Republicans on the Hill, and others, I believe Democrats as well,” Shah said. “So, I think that he has a longstanding involvement with public officials. But, you know, beyond that, I don’t have a whole lot to add.”

Jeffress appeared alongside Donald Trump in the Oval Office last September. The choir of his church, First Baptist Dallas, has performed at events headlined by Trump. Jeffress’s statements previously made headlines during the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election when he described Mormonism as a “cult” during an appearance at the conservative values voter summit. At the time, Jeffress was encouraging his audience to back current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon.

On Sunday night, ahead of the embassy opening, Romney sent a tweet where he criticized Jeffress’s role at the event.

“Robert Jeffress says, ‘You can’t be saved by being a Jew,’ and ‘Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell,’” Romney wrote. “He’s said the same about Islam. Such a religious bigot should not be giving the prayer that opens the United States Embassy in Jerusalem.”

In an interview with NBC News, Jeffress denied Romney’s charge that he’s a “bigot,” but said he believes the Mormon religion is “wrong.” First Baptist Dallas did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jeffress’s belief that only Christians will go to Heaven is common among evangelicals.

President Donald Trump, left, speaks with the Rev. Robert Jeffress during the “Celebrate Freedom” event at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, July 1, 2017. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg)

Jeffress isn’t the only religious leader with a history of controversial remarks who was involved in the embassy events.

The Rev.  John Hagee, the founder of Christians United for Israel, delivered a benediction at the embassy opening. Hagee made headlines in the 2008 presidential election when Republican candidate John McCain repudiated his endorsement after tapes surfaced of a 1999 sermon where Hagee suggested Hitler was an instrument of God’s will because he pushed many Jews to return to Israel.

“God says in Jeremiah 16: ‘Behold, I will bring them the Jewish people again unto their land that I gave to their fathers. … Behold, I will send for many fishers, and after will I send for many hunters,’” Hagee said. “’And they the hunters shall hunt them.’ That would be the Jews. … Then God sent a hunter. A hunter is someone who comes with a gun and he forces you. Hitler was a hunter.”

As that controversy erupted, Hagee wrote a letter to Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, seeking to clarify the position. Hagee stressed that he did not mean to condone the Holocaust and vowed to “work to express my faith in a way that is sensitive to and respectful of others, including the Jewish community.” Foxman responded with a letter praising Hagee for his work “combating anti-Semitism and supporting the state of Israel”

When asked about Hagee’s role in the embassy ceremony, a spokesperson for the pastor’s organization, Christians United for Israel, told Yahoo News that Hagee’s controversial sermon was based on the teachings of Jewish theologian Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal. The spokesperson also pointed to Hagee’s 2008 exchange with Foxman. The organization had no information about how Hagee was invited to participate in the ceremony.

Televangelical Rev. John Hagee attends a Christians United for Israel summit in Jerusalem, on March 8, 2010. (Photo: Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, Jared Kushner, both of whom are also advisers to the president, were blessed by Israel’s Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef as part of their trip to the country. (Israel has two chief rabbis, reflecting different origins of its Jewish population. Sephardic Jews have ancestry primarily from the Mideast and North Africa.) Yosef has been denounced by the Anti- Defamation League for remarks he made earlier this year where he compared black people to monkeys. He could not be reached for comment on this story.

After Shah initially addressed the Jeffress appearance, Yahoo News asked him to respond to specific remarks Jeffress made as well as those from Hagee and Yosef. Shah said he was unaware how the three became involved in the embassy events and distanced the White House from their controversial past statements.

“I don’t have any readout on how they became involved with these events. All I’ll say is that those specific views that you outlined, if they’re accurate reflections of what was said, wouldn’t be embraced by this White House,” Shah said. “Beyond that, I don’t have anything else.”

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