Israel has been at the center of the presidential campaign this year. The Jewish state was mentioned more than 30 times during the last presidential debate.
Europe was mentioned only once. Support for Israel has been at the center of Mitt Romney’s campaign this year. He said the Obama administration has “thrown Israel under the bus.”
Romney may be an impassioned supporter of Israel, but his Mormon church has not had it easy in Israel. Reporter Daniel Estrin brings us this story about the peculiar relationship between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Israeli government.
There’s a lot more to this place than what you’ll learn from the video they play on the public tour.
“Welcome to the Jerusalem center for near eastern studies,“ intoned a deep-voiced narrator. “We are pleased to show you this spectacular view of the old city, and the distinctive architecture and sprit of this building.”
It’s a satellite campus of Brigham Young University. Each year it hosts about 200 students for study abroad programs. And it really is a spectacular piece of real estate. It’s a 125 thousand -square foot limestone building…it slopes down a hill in eight levels. And it’s got a panoramic view of the whole city – the Mount of Olives, the ancient walls of the old city, and the city’s centerpiece, the golden dome of the rock.
On a tour of the campus school official Kent Jackson walks through manicured gardens and shows off the school’s auditorium, where Mormon students and staff hold weekly prayers. It’s got a massive organ with more than 3 thousand pipes.What the tour doesn’t discuss is the wrenching saga when the center was being built in the mid 1980s. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was fiercely opposed to the building. Rabbis feared the Mormons were coming to convert Jews. There were daily demonstrations in front of city hall. Amir Cheshin remembers them well. At the time, he was an advisor to the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek.
“Every day they were gathering in front of the building, when teddy arrived they started to shout, they raised their banners and signs. They were shouting mostly against the Mormons,” Cheshin said.
Israeli lawmakers considered canceling the multimillion-dollar project. But 154 members of Congress sent a letter to Israeli lawmakers suggesting that would put U.S.-Israel relations on the line. Israel’s government relented, but under one condition: The Mormons had to promise not to proselytize. As part of the agreement, church officials prevent Mormon students – and any Mormons visiting the country – from even talking about their faith with Israelis. Cheshin, the former mayor’s advisor, was recently on a public tour of the Mormon center.
“I wanted to hear something about the Mormons. They don’t spend one word about the Mormon community, the Mormon belief, the Mormon religion. Who are you, what are you doing, what is your belief?” he asked.
He said a Mormon official showed the tour group a framed document – a pact that the Mormon Church made with the Israeli government not to proselytize. Now, here’s the strange thing about that pact. Israel hasn’t made any other church or religious denomination sign such an agreement. Proselytizing is legal in Israel, but most churches in the country just don’t dare do it. For Mormons in Jerusalem, it’s a delicate issue. Spreading the gospel is a central pillar of the church, said Brother Jackson.
“We’ve just made promises that were taken in good faith at the time we built this facility, that we wouldn’t do anything that approached in any way which you describe rightly as being part of the central function of our church which is to talk about our church with other people,” Jackson said.
Israel isn’t the only country in the middle east – or anywhere else – that doesn’t allow Mormon missionaries. But Jerusalem isn’t just “anywhere else.” It’s different. The Book of Mormon begins in Jerusalem. The founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, professed to be a descendant of an ancient Jerusalemite called Lehi. And Mormon belief holds that Jesus will return to Jerusalem. Still, church officials say they are not going to ask Israel to revisit the non-proselytizing agreement.
“We recognize that we’ve been very blessed to be here in this country, and…it seems like it’s a pretty small price to pay for the benefits our students get out of being here in this country,” Jackson said.
Over the summer, when Mitt Romney made a high profile visit to Jerusalem, he prayed at the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, but he didn’t visit the Mormon center. Jackson said Romney has been there before. Of course, Mormonism isn’t just a sensitive topic in Israel. Surveys show that much of the American public is still wary of the Mormon Church…even though, come next week, they may vote in America’s first Mormon president. And if that happens, Mormons in Jerusalem who’ve kept their belief to themselves for two decades will likely start getting a lot of questions from curious Israelis.