US evangelical leader announces he’ll give ‘Friends of Zion’ award to Putin

Mike Evans, an adviser to Trump on Israel, says he wants to thank Russian president for the Soviet role in WWII, his help to Jews, and his support of Israel

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Mike Evans at the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2017 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Mike Evans at the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, on May 16, 2017 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

An American evangelical leader who advises US President Donald Trump on Israel announced that he will present an award to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Mike Evans, one of Trump’s informal group of evangelical advisers, said Wednesday that he would award his “Friends of Zion” award to Putin to honor the role of the Soviet Union in saving Jews during World War II. Evans was visiting Israel this week for the World Holocaust Forum.

“We want to give him the award for the following reasons. Number one, the Soviet Union liberated Auschwitz. Number two, 8,660,000 Soviet soldiers died fighting the Nazis,” Evans told the Times of Israel. “Number three, if the Soviet Union had not fought the Nazis, then Hitler would probably have taken over all of Europe, which would have meant the deaths of another three million Jews.”

Lastly, “the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize the state of Israel. There are a lot of reasons to thank the Russian people for what they’ve done,” Evans said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin escorts his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to his seat during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. Behind them os the Forum’s Moshe Kantor (Abir SULTAN / POOL / AFP)

During his speech Thursday at the World Holocaust Forum 2020 event at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Putin highlighted the Red Army’s central role in defeating the Nazis, and the colossal loss of Soviet lives. He also castigated collaboration with the Nazis in “many European countries.” Putin’s speech at the event was criticized by some historians as containing self-serving misrepresentations of history.

The organizers of the Forum earlier Thursday rejected claims that the event was being utilized to politicize the Holocaust. The presidents of Poland and Lithuania withdrew from the event, as Poland’s president was not invited to speak at the Yad Vashem ceremony, and Ukraine’s president, who did come to Jerusalem, chose not to attend the Yad Vashem gathering at the last moment. Russia is under international sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine and the event in Jerusalem, organized by a Russian oligarch close to the Kremlin, has been interpreted by some observers as an attempt to use the Holocaust to help Russia rehabilitate its international reputation.

Russia and Poland are at the heart of an intensifying battle over the the World War II and Holocaust narrative, with Poland accusing Russia of glorifying positive aspects of Soviet history and eliding over events like the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

Evans said he had told the Russian Embassy in Israel that Putin would be given the award, and it was now up to the Russian government to decide when and where to receive it.

Asked what message he wanted to send to Putin with the award, Evans said he wanted to “thank the Russian people” as well as to inform Putin of US evangelicals’ vital role in electing Trump.

“It is our evangelical base that elected the president of the United States,” he said.

Evans also said that he had played a part in the formulation of a bill Trump signed last month targeting anti-Semitism on college campuses.

“When the president passed his anti-Semitism legislation against the universities, I was on the platform with Alan Dershowitz,” Evans said. “When the president signed it, he handed me the pen that he used to sign it. It was his way of thanking me.”

President Donald Trump signs an executive order targeting what his administration says is growing anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Mike Evans is fourth from right (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Evans runs the organization “Jerusalem Prayer Team,” which has close to 70 million followers on Facebook. The organization’s purpose is to encourage Christians all over the world to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” as well as to inform them about developments in Israeli politics from a Christian perspective.

According to the website, Jerusalem is important because “most all prophecy points to Jerusalem and the end times; the new Temple being built, the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon and the 144,000 Evangelists. When we pray for the peace of Jerusalem we are praying for the Lord to return. ‘So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.’”

Evans was behind the dozens of billboards that went up around Jerusalem in May 2017 urging Trump to “Make Israel Great.” The purpose of the billboards was to remind Trump of his election promise to evangelicals to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Evans told the Times of Israel. Trump announced the move several months later in December 2017.

Evans is also responsible for the Friends of Zion Heritage Center, a multimedia museum in central Jerusalem dedicated to the history of the friendship of non-Jews toward Jews and Israel. Evans said that “100 percent” of the funding for the museum comes from evangelicals and that the “Friends of Zion” center is in the process of expanding its campus to nine buildings.

These will house a recently opened media center dedicated to teaching journalists about Israel, an Ambassador Institute to teach 100,000 Christian “ambassadors” to advocate for Israel abroad, as well as a communications center that will teach online activists to fight against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement and other perceived anti-Israel activity on social media.

Evans’ organization on Wednesday also announced upcoming exhibits honoring Russia and Trump.

“Friends of Zion Heritage Center will be building a special exhibition honoring Russia for saving a multitude of Jews during World War II. FOZ is also building an exhibition in honor of President Trump for all he has done to support the State of Israel and combat anti-Semitism,” Evans said in a statement.

Evans told The Times of Israel that the Friends of Zion Heritage Center is not involved in missionary activity; Evans was in the past criticized for zealous efforts to convert Jews to Christianity.

“That’s not our purpose, our purpose is combating anti-Semitism,” Evans said. “All of our staff is Jewish. I believe anti-Semitism is the root problem that Israel is faced with [vis-a-vis] its enemies. If you can take the anti-Semitism out you can solve the Iran problem and the Palestinian problem.”

Evans said that more than a dozen world leaders had received the “Friends of Zion” award since 2015. Previous recipients include Trump; former US president George W. Bush; Crown Prince of Monaco, Albert II; former president of Bulgaria, Rosen Plevneliev; Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro; and Georgian president Salome Zourabichvili.

Asked if he thought the award to Putin might mislead his 70 million followers into believing that Israelis support Putin when in fact Israelis’ views of the Russian leader are mixed, Evans replied: “I believe that the wisest way to build friendships from Israel is to find the positive things that people do. Our position isn’t to evaluate a person based upon perfection. We’re only saying thank you for the good deeds they did to help. Because if you think about it, if the Soviet Union had taken the Chamberlain position and hadn’t confronted the Nazis, maybe all of Europe would have been lost and all of the Middle East and there would be no Jewish state.”

Asked what Russia had done recently to show friendship to Israel, Evans replied, “This week [at the World Holocaust Forum] is about combating anti-Semitism. The fact is that Putin took the time in his schedule to come here to talk about anti-Semitism, especially when you could be sure the Palestinians are very unhappy with that. The fact that the Russians lost so many fighting in World War II, and the fact that they liberated Auschwitz, in our opinion is something they should be thanked for.”

Evans is the author of over 100 books, some of which have become bestsellers. As recently as August 2016, Evans expressed criticism of Russia in a blog post about the allegations that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee in an attempt to interfere in US elections.

“It appears now that the Russians are making a bold attempt to get a finger in the US election pie,” he wrote. “We will see who comes up with the plum when the polls close on November 8, 2016.”

Asked if his view of Russia had evolved since then, Evans replied, “I’m not involved in American intelligence. I don’t know anything about what transpired. The only mission I have is combating anti-Semitism and building bridges.”

Georgian president honored

Salome Zourabichvili speaking at a reception at the Friends of Zion museum in Jerusalem on January 21, 2020. Zourabichvili was honored with a Friends of Zion award for her friendship to Israel (Simona Weinglass/Times of Israel)

On January 21, the Friends of Zion museum hosted a reception for Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili, who was also presented with the Friends of Zion award. The event was attended by the Georgian Ambassador to Israel Lasha Zhvania as well as Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev. Two of the other headliners who had been scheduled to speak, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Georgian-Israeli businessman Mikhail Mirilashvili, canceled at the last minute.

Many of the speakers at the event said that Georgia was a country that has historically been uniquely free of anti-Semitism.

“There is a 27-century-long friendship between Georgians and Jews,” President Zourabichvili said.

She said that Holocaust remembrance events like the one being held this week in Jerusalem are necessary because “only if humans remember can they prevent the repetition of intolerable things. We must have the ability to acknowledge where we failed and to repent.”

A famous Georgian-Israeli musical duo, Kolan, sang the song “Tbilisi.”

In his speech honoring Zourabichvili, Evans compared her favorably to Trump. He related an anecdote describing how he had spent the evening of election day in 2016.

“I was here at the David Citadel Hotel having dinner with the chief rabbi of Moscow the night that Donald Trump won. The rabbi looked at me and he said to me, ‘he’s going to win.’ I said, ‘You think so?’ He said, ‘I know so.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because of our scripture reading for this week.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ ‘The story of Abraham and the blessing and the curses. This president wants to bless Israel and God is going to bless him and give him the presidency.’”

“It might have sounded very simplistic, but I can tell you as one of 25 evangelical leaders, we delivered the presidency to Donald Trump by a landslide, and we’ll do it again because of his moral clarity, his support for the state of Israel and his support for our values. You have the same thing, Madame President and we applaud you, God bless you.”

Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone, a senior adviser to Ambassador David Friedman, encouraged Zourabichvili to move the Georgian embassy to Jerusalem.

“When it’s time to pick up the artwork for your embassy in Jerusalem, Mrs. Friedman and the ambassador look forward to partnering with you,” he said.

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