The US State Department on Tuesday distanced itself from a decision to invite a controversial Evangelical pastor to speak at the opening of its embassy in Jerusalem, saying the choice was made by US Ambassador David Friedman, who hosted the ceremony.
Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist who vigorously supported Donald Trump during the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign and was a member of his evangelical advisory board, was criticized as a choice of speaker at the event given past comments he has made suggesting Jews cannot be “saved.”
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert was questioned about Jeffress at a press briefing after he gave an impassioned blessing during Monday’s opening ceremony for the new embassy as the US mission officially relocated from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“I can just tell you that Ambassador Friedman, I know, was looking at a variety of people to be a part of the service or the ceremony, and that’s who was invited,” Nauert said. “We would certainly not agree with the pastor’s remarks, some of his controversial remarks that he has made about various religious groups, but he was chosen by Ambassador Friedman, who was certainly welcome to do so, and made that decision.”
Nauert stressed that US missions have the right to choose who participates in local events, and that they do not necessarily consult with the State Department before issuing invitations.
“Embassies certainly have their free will sometimes to make decisions about who they want to bring in as guest lecturers or people to lead a ceremony or some sort of a celebration,” she said. “To my knowledge, we did not have any role in making that decision…not that we asked to. I’m just saying that embassies and people around the world bring in lots and lots of people who have various opinions.”
Jeffress has made a number of controversial statements, including during a 2010 lecture when he said “God sends good people to Hell. Not only do religions like Mormonism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism–not only do they lead people away from from God, they lead people to an eternity of separation from God in Hell.”
Ahead of the embassy opening ceremony, Senate candidate Mitt Romney of Utah criticized the selection of Jeffress, saying he is a “religious bigot.”
The Jerusalem Open House on Monday also lambasted Jeffress’s participation, saying he had in the past called those who promote gay rights “pedophilia activists” and said homosexuality was a “perversion.”
The role of Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, was seen as underlining the significance of the Jerusalem event as an appeal to Christian conservatives, part of Trump’s base of supporters.
In the past, Friedman has made remarks that were later rebuffed by Washington as not reflecting official policy. Last September he told Israel’s Walla news site he thought “the settlements are part of Israel.” Nauert later told reporters that his comments marked no shift in the US position. He has also reportedly been seeking to adopt the Israeli name for the West Bank — Judea and Samaria — in his official remarks and statements, but has so far been prevented from doing so by the Trump administration.
Friedman was a controversial pick for ambassador, largely due to his lack of diplomatic experience, views on the settlements and derogatory comments he made about left-wing Jewish groups, for which he subsequently apologized. Friedman was a major donor to the settlement of Beit El and has said that Israel can annex the West Bank and still retain its Jewish character.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.