Senator Ted Cruz’s vigorous affirmation of Israel, which provoked boos from a conference for persecuted Mideast Christians on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., has created a growing controversy. Unfortunately, the strife is unlikely to help either Israel or besieged Christians threatened by ISIS, among other dark forces.
The controversy flows partly from the very different historical journeys of American Christians and Mideast Christians. As the conference keynoter, Cruz was barely a few minutes into his remarks before telling the packed hotel ballroom that Israel was a friend to Christians, prompting a growing chorus of jeers. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you,” he declared before hastily quitting the podium, startling much of the audience. A cleric restored calm by leading the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer.
Doubtless Cruz had read a Washington Free Beacon report earlier in the day linking several of the visiting Mideast bishops to Assad’s Syrian dictatorship and his Hezbollah allies, plus intemperate conspiracy-themed statements on Israel. Another report cited non-participation in the conference by a U.S. Coptic group and another Arab Christian U.S. group, which discerned bias by some conference participants towards Assad and his patron, Iran. Much if not most of the conference focused on the ISIS threat to Iraqi and Syrian Christians.
The conference organizer was the newly formed group In Defense of Christians (IDC), which emerged earlier this year and was first envisioned at a National Catholic Prayer Breakfast two years ago. Prominent U.S. Catholic leaders participated in this week’s event, as did Eastern Orthodox prelates and some Evangelicals. Mainline Protestant officials, unsurprisingly, were almost entirely absent, not traditionally interested in persecuted Christians in the Mideast or anywhere else.
IDC quickly released a statement after the Cruz imbroglio, lamenting that:
a few politically motivated opportunists chose to divide a room that for more than 48 hours sought unity in opposing the shared threat of genocide, faced not only by our Christian brothers and sisters, but our Jewish brothers and sisters and people of other all other faiths and all people of good will.
The next day, Evangelical author Eric Metexas, known for his recent biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spoke powerfully to IDC of the anti-Nazi martyr’s sacrificial exertions against Hitlerism, especially its crimes against the Jews. “The Church must always be the conscience of the state,” he asserted, warning of divine judgment for contemporary failure to act against today’s persecutions.
IDC points out that Christians 100 years ago comprised one fifth of the Mideast population but today are only five percent, numbering about 12 million. Iraq alone has lost over 50 percent of its Christians in the last decade, with ISIS the latest and most lethal threat.
Except for the 50,000 or so Palestinian Christians, the Israel-Palestinian struggle is likely not foremost on the minds of most Mideast Christians, who typically have their own respective national struggles for survival. Syrian Christians have been the biggest losers of their country’s horrific civil war. Egypt’s Christians, the region’s largest by far, have survived the deposed Muslim Brotherhood regime, but their future is never certain. Lebanon’s once paramount Christian community has long since shrunk to minority status, politically divided among a nation of factions, which includes Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
The highly enjoyable, over-the-top 1986 Chuck Norris action thriller Delta Force featured a heroic Lebanese priest covertly serving both Israel’s Mossad and a U.S. military team against terror targets. Lebanon’s Western oriented Maronite Christian rulers and Israel collaborated in the 1980s. But Lebanese Christian demographic decline has today placed many Maronites in odd coalition with Hezbollah, aligning Shiite and Christian minorities against the more numerous Sunni.
Hence Lebanon’s Maronite patriarch, present at this week’s IDC conference, as cited by the Washington Free Beacon, has relations with Hezbollah, which seeks Iranian-style Shiite theocracy. This relationship is only one small segment of the endlessly murky puzzle of Mideast politics, in which Christian minorities pivot through sometimes unsavory accommodations in their centuries-long struggle for survival under Islamic majorities. Some of the region’s most murderous tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein and both Assads, have given relative protection to Christian minorities, which they cynically leveraged against their more theocratic foes.
Should Americans countenance anti-U.S. tyrannical regimes because they offer somewhat more protection to religious minorities than do more popular, more Islamist alternatives? Should Americans expect Mideast Christians, per Senator Cruz, to affirm Israel, which is the only Mideast nation whose Christian population is steadily growing?
Americans are shaped by Anglo Protestantism’s confident and ultimately successful quest for political and religious liberty over nearly 500 years. Our history rightly leads us to champion Israeli democracy and hope for ordered liberty throughout the highly unreceptive Mideast. Mideast Christians, conquered by Muhammad’s followers over 1,300 years ago, have a more tragic, haphazard past that leads them in less idealistic directions. Yet they still hope for freedom to live and worship without chronic fear.
Hopefully American Christians and others can help Mideast Christians survive and prevail, for the benefit of all. But our different histories, perceptions, and destinies will include inevitable tensions and misunderstandings. This week’s episode in a Washington hotel ballroom was just one example among what will be likely many more.