Malawi will establish an embassy in Jerusalem, its foreign minister announced during a visit to Israel.
The move represents “a bold and significant step,” the minister, Eisenhower Mkaka, said in a video statement Tuesday. It would make Malawi the first African country in decades to open an embassy in Jerusalem, a city considered holy to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions.
“I look forward to your embassy opening soon, and I’m sure that more African leaders will follow this decision,” Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in appearing with Mkaka, Reuters reported.
Malawi is one of few African countries to have maintained continuous diplomatic ties with Israel since the central African country’s independence in 1964, according to The Jerusalem Post. It reports that 16 countries – including Ivory Coast, Kenya and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo – closed embassies in Jerusalem following the 1973 Middle East War. Those that later reopened embassies did so in the commercial hub of Tel Aviv.
U.S. President Donald Trump sparked controversy for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017 and shifting the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv the following May. Guatemala soon followed suit, and a handful of other countries have at least publicly contemplated similar moves.
Malawi’s embassy plans in Jerusalem mark a step by President Lazarus Chakwera, who took office in June, “to establish full diplomatic relations with certain strategic partners,” his communications director, Sean Kampondeni, told VOA in a phone interview.
African Union chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat at the time had denounced the U.S. Embassy move, saying it would “only increase tensions in the region” and further complicate resolving the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said the African Union shared the Palestinian people’s desire for an independent state, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Kampondeni said that while Chakwera is “very supportive” of a two-state solution, the president also “has made it clear that Malawi will always pursue diplomatic relations on the basis of what is in the best interest of Malawi.”
Kampondeni noted that since Malawi’s independence in 1964, the country has maintained diplomatic relations with Israel.
“Malawi has had very warm and cordial relations with various nations in the Arab world,” he added, “and President Chakwera continues to advocate for the same in the interest of peace in the region.”
Relations between Israel and many Arab and Muslim states have remained hostile for decades because of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Palestinians want as land for a future state. Until this year, only Egypt and Jordan had made peace with Israel.
In October, Sudan’s transitional government – pressured by Washington – reached an agreement with Israel to normalize relations, though the deal did not mention embassies.
Malawi’s embassy is expected to open sometime in 2021. Kampondeni said the Malawi and Israeli foreign ministers were discussing when Israel would open an embassy in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Among the central African country’s 20 million residents, 77% are Christian and nearly 14% are Muslim, according to a U.S. State Department report. Jews – along with Hindus, Bahai’s, Rastafarians and Sikhs – account for less than 6%.