Prominent pastors were last night drawn into the fierce controversy over today's US embassy move to Jerusalem, as senate candidate Mitt Romney of Utah said that Baptist minister Robert Jeffress should not be giving the opening prayer because he's a 'religious bigot'.
The former Massachusetts governor and 2012 Republican presidential nominee attacked Jeffress for his remarks about Jews, Mormons and Islam.
Romney wrote on Twitter: 'Robert Jeffress says "you can't be saved by being a Jew," and "Mormonism is a heresy from the pit of hell." He's said the same about Islam.'
The liberal group Media Matters reported on its website that Jeffress made the remarks cited by Romney in a 2011 speech at the conservative Values Voter Summit.
Jeffress responded on Twitter, saying: 'Historic Christianity has taught for 2,000 years that salvation is through faith in Christ alone. The fact that I, along with tens of millions of evangelical Christians around the world, continue to espouse that belief, is neither bigoted nor newsworthy.'
And Jeffress told Fox News Radio about his participation in the embassy opening, saying: 'In that prayer, I'm going to be recounting God's history of faithfulness to his people, the Israelites. I'm going to be thanking God for the strong leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, who is absolutely determined to protect Israel. And I'm also going to be thanking God for our president Donald Trump, who had the courage to do what no other US president has done, and that is to officially recognise Jerusalem and to move the embassy. This is another example of promise made, promise kept.'
The role in the embassy opening of Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, a Southern Baptist megachurch, was not the only one under the spotlight.
It also emerged that pastor John Hagee, the right-wing founder of Christians United for Israel, will deliver the benediction at the ceremony, a spokesman for his organisation confirmed to CNN.
Hagee, a major supporter of Israel and of Donald Trump, said in a recent interview with conservative news site Breitbart that he told Trump he would win 'political immortality' for moving the embassy from Tel Aviv.
'I told him that the moment that you do that, I believe that you will step into political immortality,' the site quoted Hagee as saying. 'Because you are having the courage to do what other presidents did not have the courage to do.'
Hagee came under the national political spotlight in 2008 for comments that prompted the then-Republican presidential candidate John McCain to reject his endorsement.
During that campaign, audio from one of Hagee's sermons in the 1990s was leaked that appeared to suggest that Adolf Hitler had been fulfilling God's will by aiding the desire of Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy.
According to a transcript of the sermon, Hagee said: '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. 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.'
McCain said in a statement at the time: 'Obviously, I find these remarks and others deeply offensive and indefensible, and I repudiate them. I did not know of them before Rev Hagee's endorsement, and I feel I must reject his endorsement as well.'
Hagee claimed that his comments had been misrepresented, saying that 'to assert that I in any way condone the Holocaust or that monster Adolf Hitler is the biggest and ugliest of lies. I have always condemned the horrors of the Holocaust in the strongest of terms.'
A spokesman for Hagee's group, Ari Morgenstern, told CNN that the pastor gave the sermon based on the writings of a Jewish theologian, Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo Teichtal, who was imprisoned by the Nazis and wrote that the afflictions that were befalling the Jewish population of Europe during World War II were meant to spur a return by Jews to the Holy Land.
Meanwhile, the former US presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, who in 2015 appeared to call for intensified efforts to convert Jews to Christianity, yesterday apologised for her past 'ignorant' comments about the Jewish people.
Speaking at an inter-faith Bible study at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, the former Minnesota congresswoman spoke generally and declined to say what comments she was apologising for.
She said: 'Personally, I know that in ignorance...myself, I have stated things that I should not have said and I profoundly apologise and repent and ask forgiveness from Almighty God for my statements that, though said in ignorance, have brought pain.'
Bachmann, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, further asked for forgiveness over the 'horrible and, yes, I would say, the arrogant way that Christians – I would include myself among them – have treated and regarded the Jewish people' throughout history.
Following a visit to Israel in 2015, Bachmann told the right-wing radio station Washington Watch: 'We recognise the shortness of the hour, and that's why we as a remnant want to be faithful in these days and do what it is that the Holy Spirit is speaking to each one of us, to be faithful in the Kingdom and to help bring in as many as we can – even among the Jews – share Jesus Christ with everyone that we possibly can because, again, he's coming soon.'