When Senator Ted Cruz delivered the keynote address at last Wednesday’s inaugural In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington, D.C., he was expected to place a much-needed spotlight on the plight of the ancient and persecuted Christian communities of the Middle East.
Instead, under the guise of supporting Israel, Cruz placed the spotlight squarely on himself, and by so doing inflicted untold damage to the cause of Christianity’s survival in the Middle East.
There’s been some misinformation about exactly what Cruz said to the crowd and how it was received. (You can see for yourself here.)
First Cruz offered a few strong remarks about Middle Eastern Christians and the need for solidarity with Jews (all of which were unanimously applauded). Then he began making increasingly provocative statements about Jews and Israel, seemingly gauging the audience’s reaction with each remark. He said:
Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.
Let me say this: Those who hate Israel hate America. And those who hate Jews hate Christians.
And if this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps, that the men and women here will not stand in solidarity with Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals who seek to murder them.
If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ.
And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target and murder Jews for their faith, for the same reason.
I will say this: I am saddened to see that some here, not everyone, but some here, are so consumed with hate that you cannot address your brother. I will say this: If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you.
Thank you and goodbye.
And with that, walked off stage.
Contrary to many media accounts, Cruz was not “booed off stage.” Sitting in the audience, I heard the booing, but there was not enough to drown out his voice, and he could have easily kept speaking. The heckling I heard consisted of cries of “Stop it” and “Enough.” One man yelled: “Nobody said we hate the Jews. The meeting is for the Christians.”
It was pretty mild stuff. But Cruz later claimed that the audience’s “virulent display of hatred and bigotry was remarkable, and considerably different than anything I’ve previously encountered.”
One audience member yelled, “You’re going to get us all killed!” That was a reference to the fact that many of the attendees and church leaders had flown in from Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, and other places where ostentatious displays of support for Israel could make them even bigger targets of the jihadists. By turning the summit into a debate about Israel, Cruz may have put the lives of some of the attendees and their families at risk.
After Cruz left, my girlfriend turned to me and said she was surprised that Cruz didn’t know his audience better. I replied that he knew exactly who his audience was, but it wasn’t the one sitting in that hotel conference room. He was signaling to the Republican Party’s very pro-Israel base that he’d stand up for Jewish State against all its enemies, real and imagined.
Anti-Semitism is a real and important problem. And it is one that numerous groups in Washington, D.C. are devoted to combatting, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Christians United for Israel, whose annual summit Cruz spoke at only two months ago.
But IDC is the only group I’m aware of that has taken up the cause of Middle Eastern Christians. Cruz missed an important opportunity by not focusing on their plight.
Some media reports portrayed IDC as anti-Israel. There were some Middle East Christians in attendance who probably could not be described as “pro-Israel.” But there were also many — probably the vast majority — who embrace that label.
As IDC President Toufic Baaklini said in a statement after the event: “Sen. Cruz chose to stand against the small and vocal minority of attendees who disagree with his views on Israel rather than standing with the vast majority of those who attended the gala and support both Israel and the Middle East’s Christians.”
I attended some of the speeches and panel discussions during the three-day conference, and many included statements stressing the importance of assisting not only vulnerable Christians but also Jews and all people of goodwill who are terrorized by radical Islamists.
The conference was organized around the ideal of unity. It was the first successful attempt to bring leaders of the ancient Middle Eastern Christian churches, many of whom have deep disagreements with one another, together in one room. Conference speakers included Christians, Jews, and Muslims as well as Democratic and Republican office-holders and even a former Obama administration cabinet member.
Everyone got along and maintained a spirit of comity and unity. Everyone, that is, except Cruz. Baaklini said that Cruz’s stunt was “the only deviation from unity of the entire summit.”
Cruz missed an opportunity to bring attention to a crisis that has been scandalously under-reported. Instead of trying to divide the crowd over Israel, Cruz could have talked about how Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world.
He could have discussed the plight of the Chaldeans and Assyrians of Iraq, who numbered roughly 1.4 million only eleven years ago but now number fewer than 500,000. He could have talked about how they have been forced to flee the country and live as refugees elsewhere or be killed.
He could have called attention to the fact that in June ISIS captured the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and painted the symbol for “Nazarene” on the homes of Christians, thus giving those families notice that they had 24 hours to leave the city, convert to Islam, or be executed.
But Cruz didn’t talk about any of those things. Instead, as Andrew Doran, IDC’s executive director, said in an interview, Cruz “chose to make a summit of and for Middle Eastern Christians about something other than a summit about Middle Eastern Christians.”
But Cruz only partially succeeded in drawing attention away from the plight of Middle Eastern Christians. The task before IDC is too important to be co-opted by self-serving politicians. As IDC put in a statement following the Cruz episode, “We remain undaunted and focused on achieving our goals.”