Philip Earl Steele – Peter Švec, it’s an honor. You are the national director of the Slovak branch of the ICEJ, the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem. The ICEJ arose just over 4 decades ago in defence of Jerusalem’s status as the capital of Israel. Please tell us about the ICEJ’s beginnings and how it has grown into the large organization it is today.
Peter Švec – The International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) was established in 1980, which was a dynamic year for Israel. That summer, the Israeli Knesset (Parliament) declared Jerusalem – founded almost three thousand years ago by King David – to be the indivisible capital of the state of Israel.
The reaction of the Muslim states to this legitimate step was a spectacular boycott. The countries which, in keeping with diplomatic customs, had their embassies in the capital, were threatened with having their oil supplies cut off. The gates of the embassies of the 13 countries of the world that were already in Jerusalem then closed. Even the greatest allies of the Jewish state cowered.
In response, a group of people coalesced from differing Christian denominations and from different parts of the world. That very year, 1980, they organized the first joint celebration of the Biblical Feast of Tabernacles, one of the most important on the Jewish calendar. Those diverse Christians did what their domestic political leaders did not have the courage to do. They established an embassy in Jerusalem.
Of course, the ICEJ is not an embassy in the formal diplomatic sense. It is a non-governmental, non-profit organization which expresses recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. A group of people from a range of countries thus took a civic stance in respect for history. After all, Jerusalem was never the capital of any nation other than the Jews. At the same time, this was a step of deep spiritual significance.
Since then, the ICEJ has opened more than 90 branches, thanks to which it can develop its work in up to 170 countries around the world. We have become one of the “frontliners” among organizations actively working to build relationships between Christians and Jews. We are also fighting various manifestations of antisemitism. The extensive work of the ICEJ headquarters in Jerusalem would be for a separate interview. But I need to say that globally, the ICEJ has three basic goals: to support and show friendship toward Israel, to actively contribute to the teaching of the Church about God’s purposes with Israel and the nations of the Middle East, and to be an active voice of reconciliation between Jews, Christians, and Arabs.
ICEJ Slovakia was established in 2000 with the transformation of the hitherto existing Society of Friends of Israel. Since then, we have striven to apply the goals of the ICEJ at the local level, as well.
Our main mission is to straighten out the misconceptions and distortions and, sticking to historical facts, return the Jews to their key place in the story of Christianity, but also of civilization generally. The Early Church and the whole “root system” of its values, including the very concept of salvation, have their origins in Judaism. All the key figures in the New Testament were Jews.
The basic motivation for our work both globally and locally in Slovakia is from Isaiah 40:1 – “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. We are convinced that this passage of Scripture is addressed to us believers from the gentile nations. God exhorts us to show support and love – prayerfully, but also quite practically – for our elder brothers.
P.E.S.: The US opened its new embassy in Jerusalem in 2018, on Israel’s Independence day – May 14. In accentuation of the long-standing support of US Christians for Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, the ceremony began with a prayer led by the American pastor Robert Jeffress – and it ended with prayer led by pastor John Hagee, the head of the US’s largest pro-Israel lobby, Christians United for Israel. Since then, other countries with a strong Christian Evangelical presence have moved their embassies to Jerusalem – Guatemala and Honduras – and many others have pledged to soon do so. Among them is Malawi, whose president is an Evangelical theologian.
Does the ICEJ feel vindicated at long last to see the growing number of embassies in Jerusalem?
And what about the EU countries of Central Europe? Can we soon expect any of them to move their embassies to Jerusalem?
P.Š.: Jerusalem is at the core of both the spiritual and political identity of the Jewish nation. And as I have stressed, Jerusalem is also at the center of our ministry.
The topic of the withdrawn diplomatic missions became headline news in 2017. Then US President Donald Trump announced that he would not postpone the application of legislation passed 22 years previously by a large majority of both chambers of the US Congress. In May 2018 Washington therefore moved its mission from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Despite the longstanding protests of the Arab world and the assumed threats of almost global conflict, nothing of the kind happened. As some analysts quipped, the US ambassador simply moved the sign from the embassy in Tel Aviv and placed it on the consulate in Jerusalem. And thus the new president, Joe Biden, has upheld the decision of his predecessor.
The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and the relocation of foreign embassies there shows a logical respect for diplomatic practice. And it is confirmation of many years of reality. Moreover, since 1967, the Jewish state has proven to be a good administrator of the city. By investing in modernization, it has built a populous metropolis, but also secured access to the holy places of all religions. Before 1967, when the city was under Jordanian rule, this was definitely not the case. By the way, when in addition to East Jerusalem, Jordan – from 1949 – also controlled the so-called West Bank, no one in the international community derogatorily labeled the Jordanians “occupiers”. Nonetheless, the Israelis are often described as occupiers in the land of their ancestors. Worth adding here is that Jerusalem, as the capital of Israel, does not question the right of any religion to deem it a holy city. If only that is based on historical facts.
But let’s go back to Slovakia. In 2018, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of modern Israel, we at ICEJ formulated a public call which we addressed in the form of a letter to Slovakia’s three highest constitutional officials – the President, the Prime Minister, and the Speaker of Parliament. In it, we called for the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state and the relocation of our embassy to Jerusalem. More than 1,500 Slovak citizens signed the letter. Among them were several personalities from public life. But nothing happened then. In fact, none of our authorities even responded. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs had only formal objections, and did not then comment on the contents of the letter.
In the meantime, the government has changed and Slovakia’s official position on Israel is also cautiously changing. We were very pleased when on Wednesday, July 14, the head of Slovak diplomacy Ivan Korčok announced “the opening of the Slovak Institute in Jerusalem on September 1, 2021”. He emphasized that “it will be a standard part of the network of Slovak institutes abroad run by the diplomacy department, while the Slovak embassy in Israel will remain in Tel Aviv”. His Israeli counterpart, Yair Lapid, thanked Korčok on Twitter for “the important decision to open the Slovak Institute in Jerusalem.”
This is an important step, encoded as a diplomatic “prank”, so to speak, but it entails the establishment of a diplomatic mission. A bold step in the Slovak context. Slovakia has thus added itself to the short list of EU countries that includes Hungary and the Czech Republic, as they’ve made analogous decisions. ICEJ Slovakia publicly applauded this decision as a step in the right direction. At the same time, we’ve encouraged the Slovak government to act more boldly still – to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to move its embassy to Jerusalem outright.
Our appeal to the Slovak government also hearkened to our own historical experience. Back when Bratislava was chosen as the capital of Slovakia, the city’s Slovak population numbered less than 20 percent. And yet today it is our undisputed capital. In Jerusalem today, the Jewish population represents more than 60 percent of the city’s population.
P.E.S.: Indeed, in recent years Slovakia has underlined its pro-Israeli position on numerous occasions. Another example is from May this year, when during Hamas’s rocket attacks, the Slovak foreign minister – Ivan Korčok – toured sites in Israel that had been hit and stressed your country’s support for Israel’s right to defend itself. Please say more about to what degree the ICEJ’s Slovak branch has encouraged this pro-Israeli stance. More broadly, what do the ICEJ’s lobbying efforts look like in Slovakia?
P.Š.: The latest attacks on Israel, launched by Hamas from the Gaza Strip on May 10, 2021, were on an unprecedented scale. Altogether, more than 5,000 rockets hit Israel. Indiscriminately. Nevertheless, Israel was criticized by much of the media and most of the world’s politicians. For defending its civilian population…
A refreshing example from Slovakia was the attitude of the most relevant political parties, expressed in an open declaration of Israel’s right to self-defense. In an official statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs identified Hamas as the source of the conflict. Our head of diplomacy even traveled to Israel, as you mentioned, where, along with his ministerial colleagues from the Czech Republic and Germany, he expressed solidarity with Israel. In the past, we had been used to diplomatic formulas without any clear meaning. The Old Town of Bratislava also took a stand, when – following the example of our neighbors in the Czech Republic – an Israeli flag was hung above the City Hall.
We issued two statements on behalf of ICEJ Slovakia. The first we issued alone. The second statement was issued jointly with the Alliance for Israel (API), which consists of ICEJ Slovakia, B’nai B’rith Tolerance Bratislava, and the Israel Chamber of Commerce in Slovakia. In both, we highlighted not only the right but also the duty of a democratic state such as Israel to defend their citizens from terrorist attacks. Around 50 public figures, representatives of Christian churches and the Jewish community, added their signatures to the API statement. More than 1,000 people from the general public also signed the statement.
In addition, we held a peaceful public demonstration to express solidarity with Israel, called “Flags for Israel”. More than 200 people came to this event in the center of Bratislava.
P.E.S.: Christian pro-Israeli activism around the world rests predominantly with Evangelical Christians. Please tell us about the ICEJ’s partnership with Evangelicals and other Christian churches in Slovakia.
P.Š.: Besides the many occasions I’ve mentioned when we publicly voiced our pro-Israeli position, also crucial are our regular prayers for Israel, for the peace of Jerusalem. Prayers are at the heart of our ministry. This underlines our natural connection with churches. Among our members are Christians of various denominations. What unites us is our strong awareness of the Jewish roots of Christianity.
The ICEJ is part of the Christians in the City platform. This platform brings together Christian leaders from various Christian communities. Without their support, we could not have done much at all. The ICEJ is actually perceived as an expression of the Church’s service to the Jews and Israel. We do not substitute the Church – rather, we unite people from different churches in our ministry for Israel.
Our key activity is to motivate Christians in Slovakia to participate in the celebrations of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. This is a high-profile event of the ICEJ, by which we express support for Israel and Jerusalem as its capital on a spiritual, educational, but also quite practical level. Before the COVID pandemic, up to 6,000 Christians from all over the world came to the capital of the Jewish state for this event. Slovakia wants to be represented there through its Bible-believing Christians.
About specific local activities, I wish to mention our joint activity with the church congregation Word of Life in Bratislava, which has been underway for many years. On the occasion of Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the UN General Assembly on the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, every year we together organize an event to commemorate the Holocaust. In recent years, this has evolved into one whole Day for Israel. We always deal with the topic spiritually, but also with a lecture to which guests from outside are invited.
Christian congregations and churches in Slovakia turn to us for help with various events, as well as for clarification on what is happening in Israel. It can be said that over the years we have felt more and more support from Christians.
Support from Jewish communities is equally valuable to us. Especially since the visit of representatives of the Knesset and the World Jewish Congress in May 2016, when the group “Allies of Israel” was established in the National Council of the Slovak Republic. This was an event primarily organized by us, the Slovak branch of the ICEJ.
Since then, we have organized, at the suggestion of our friends from the Jewish community, a joint Sukkot, i.e., the Feast of Tabernacles. We appreciate this immensely.
We are pleased that representatives above all from Evangelical churches, but often other Christians as well as the Jewish community, automatically associate with us with everything related to the building of Christian-Jewish relations..
P.E.S.: Recently I interviewed the Polish pastor Edward Ćwierz, who is the most prominent leader of Poland’s Christian Zionists. He began his work regarding Israel by trying to heal the wounds still remaining from the tragic pogrom of 1946 against the Jews in his hometown, Kielce. Pastor Michael Maass, who several years ago headed the ICEJ’s office in Lithuania, also recently told me that his work there involved atonement for antisemitism in the WWII era. The same goes for the prominent Hungarian Christian Zionist activist, Andrea Simonyi, whom I interviewed in this series.
What about Slovakia? Does the ICEJ’s work in Slovakia involve atonement for policies of the Tiso/Tuka period during WWII?
P.Š.: Yes. The Holocaust is the topic we started our ministry with in Slovakia. And it’s a central element of our service. At our first major event in 2000, the Holocaust Exhibition, we were pleased to welcome the then President of the Republic, Rudolf Schuster.
Another big event in which we participated was the Sources of Hope. Since then, we have been organizing with the Czech ICEJ branch trips for high school students to the March of the Living in Auschwitz. For several years now we have trained lecturers to speak about the Holocaust at schools. Again together with the Czech branch we have been organizing the Vrba-Wetzler Memorial. This is a march in the footsteps of two Slovak prisoners of Jewish origin who successfully escaped from the Auschwitz concentration camp and wrote the famous report on the death factory. Further, we have been co-organizing the Reading of the Names of Holocaust Victims in Slovakia for more than 10 years.
This is all connected with a dark part of our history – the fascist Slovak state in the period of World War II and the disgrace of the then President Jozef Tiso. As Christians, we are very remorseful over this period of Slovakia’s past and we are publicly repenting for it.
Our principle is that we, as Christians, want to be in charge of organizing these events. Jews, as the community affected by the Holocaust, are to be the esteemed guests of our events.
P.E.S.: How do you see the ICEJ’s work in Slovakia developing in the upcoming years?
P.Š.: Above all, we want to continue to pray ceaselessly. This is the backbone of our ministry. Even if we do not manage to organize anything more, we will continue to pray.
For me, the ICEJ ministry is rare in that it combines sound Bible-based spiritual teaching with analysis of the political situation in Israel and the region. So, in addition to the Holocaust, we also deal with the modern state of Israel. We talk about Israel, about its significance for the world, and we comment publicly on the political situation in the region – on events that impact Israel.
In January, 2009 we were the first organization in Slovakia to organize a public demonstration to express solidarity with Israel. That followed the first shelling of Israel from Gaza. There have been many similar events since then when we expressed public and open support for the Jewish state.
However, three years ago – on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Israel – we started organizing an event called Milk&Honey, an event that we intend to hold regularly. We commemorate not only the establishment of modern Israel, but also the reunification of Jerusalem. The event takes the form of lectures on various topics, but also includes a public demonstration in the square with a number of guests from the public sphere, but of course also from the churches.
In October 2021, we are planning to hold a Czech-Slovak ICEJ Connection conference. Last year, the COVID crisis prevented us. We believe that this year will succeed.
Several joint projects are also being set up in co-operation with the Jewish community.
We initiated the creation of the Alliance for Israel, where together with two other influential organizations, we jointly formulate opinions on important events concerning Israel and the Jewish community. The work of the Alliance is just beginning and through this co-operation we want to enhance our profile in communication with the government when we publicly express solidarity with the Jewish state.
Lastly, our key task today is to develop fundraising. To support both global and local projects. As you know, we do events in both public and Christian environments, where we aim to make ever more meaningful use of our resources in education. But without financial resources, our service cannot develop more widely. We need more co-workers, colleagues, and volunteers. We turn to individuals and the churches to make regular financial contributions on behalf of our work. Because we want to do our job in Slovakia even better. Not only do we owe a lot to the Jewish community, but we also have a lot to learn from it, and in many ways it is an inspiration to us.
Photography: Oles Cheresko
Philip Earl Steele
Historian, editor, former lecturer at the University of Warsaw. Author of the book The Conversion and Baptism of Mieszko I and many papers, especially ones on religious studies, published in Poland, Israel, the Czech Republic, the US and the UK. His Polish-language book entitled Israel and Evangelical Christians: “A Match Made in Heaven” will be published soon.