Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has issued an unprecedented attack on a Christian conference taking place in Bethlehem this week, accusing organisers of "using religion for the purpose of incitement".
Christ at the Checkpoint (CATC), hosted by Bethlehem Bible College, is the third such gathering following successful conferences in 2010 and 2012. Delegates predominantly hail from Protestant communities in Europe and North America, and in particular from evangelical churches and organisations.
As such, the Israeli government and its lobby groups see CATC as threatening the pro-Israel support long characteristic of much of the evangelical community. As an Israel MFA official told Christian Zionist publication Israel Today, the conference "is particularly problematic, because it is designed for the evangelical Christian leadership – an extremely important audience to us."
The Israeli government statement released to Israel Today reads as follows:
The attempt to use religious motifs in order to mobilize political propaganda and agitate the feelings of the faithful through the manipulation of religion and politics is an unacceptable and shameful act. Using religion for the purpose of incitement in the service of political interests stains the person who does it with a stain of indelible infamy.
In addition, the Israeli government claimed to have "already actively targeted specific participants in the conference, as well as leaders of the groups who will attend the event, in a coordinated effort to expose them to our side of the story".
Prior to the MFA statement, groups known for attacking human rights defenders and supporters of Palestinian rights such as NGO Monitor and Christians United for Israel had already lambasted the conference.
There was no sign that the attacks would have a detrimental effect on the conference programme, with speakers and delegates beginning a full schedule of events, many of which will be streamed online.