I speak as an eyewitness, not an expert on the politics of the Middle East. Here is how the scene appeared to me.
On September 9th to 11th, a new advocacy group in Washington, In Defense of Christians, pulled off what seems to me like a major logistical miracle. Somehow they managed to get all the Patriarchs of the Middle East — Catholic & Orthodox of all the various rites, as well as evangelicals and others– to meet together to present a unified voice in Washington as advocates for their people across the Middle East.
These are people who have serious internecine and theological squabbles amongst themselves and don’t easily mix, but IDC got them to Washington under a promise of keeping things as apolitical as possible in the circumstances and focusing on defending Christians, not tackling political resolution of Mid-East tensions – on which the churches themselves do not agree.
The tenuousness of Christian unity was an ever-present tension during the conference days, delicately alluded to by many participants. For example, Maronite Eparch Gregory Mansour, in remarks at a moving inter-faith prayer service, marveled that such a gathering should take place, and told participants that God was pleased with their unity, in spite of its fragility and in spite of the profound political differences among the gathered. Our unity “is not perfect,” the Patriarch said, “What marriage is? But it is good. And I think God is happy with it.”
The mood was one of “the ecumenism of the martyrs,” in Cardinal Sandri’s phrase, with all participants willing to put aside for a time their political and theological differences for the sake of something more important: defending defenseless and persecuted Christians around the world. As IDC Executive Director Andrew Doran put it, the purpose of the summit was to end the ignorance of the plight of Christians outside Washington and to end the indifference to it inside Washington. IDC brought the patriarchs and representatives of important apostolates and charities to Washington to make the case to Congress that helping Christians in the Middle East is in the foreign policy interests of the U.S. because of the volume of charitable work being done by Christian organizations and because every Christian is in his or her person a force for moderation in the region.
At the close of the second day of a conference exceeding everyone’s expectations, Senator Ted Cruz addressed a crowd of more than 1100 people at a gala dinner that marked the peak of the three-day conference.
He opened well enough, saying Christians have to take a united stand against terrorism in all its forms –pointedly including Hezbollah & Hamas among the list. This ruffled some feathers for reasons I’ll get to, but I think it would have been let go had he not moved into a disquisition on the nobility and rightness of the founding (not the existence today) of Israel.
Responding to grumbling about that, the Senator then said that Israel is the greatest ally of Christians in the Middle East, at which people from largely Christian Lebanon (I’m guessing the majority of the people in the room) took profound offense. They lay claim to that title.
Misreading (as I think) the reason for the grumbling, Cruz then said people who don’t love Israel hate the Jews and those who hate Israel hate America. At that point the Lebanese ambassador and one of the Patriarchs stomped out and a few people in the back of the room shouted comments at Cruz ( I couldn’t make out what they said.)
I would say about half the room applauded Senator Cruz — either in agreement or just wanting him to be allowed to have his say. It is important to note that early in his remarks the audience applauded when Senator Cruz said Christians need to be united in defense of Christians, and applauded again when he said they need to be united in defense of Jews.
To lay my cards on the table, my father is Jewish and I think I am about as pro-Israel as one gets. Yet Senator Cruz appeared to me to behave boorishly — totally out of tone, with apparently no understanding of the actual conditions under which half the people in front of him live on a daily basis, and squandering a great opportunity to make the American view point more understandable for a room full of religious leaders in the Middle East who don’t “get” us any more than we “get” them.
In the Senator’s defense, I gather from pre-dinner gossip that there was a big story in the morning press that was sort of a hit job on the conference, alleging that a couple of the patriarchs had Hezbollah ties. Without investigating that charge personally, I assume it is true. I don’t know how one could be involved in charity work in Lebanon or Syria without *some* level of cooperation with Hezbollah. That’s not the same thing as being a terrorist to my mind (though I would be open to evidence and as I say I haven’t investigated those claims). Molly Hemingway points out in The Federalist that the “cooperation” alleged is against ISIS, and that seems defensible to me under the precept “any port in a storm.” The U.S. allied with Stalin to defeat Hitler.
It’s also perfectly true that many of the Patriarchs seem to share the ethnic and political notions of their flock. Should we be shocked at this? Most Christian pastors tend to have the same political opinions as everyone else — indeed, I take Senator Cruz to have been reflecting the mind of an Evangelical Protestant.
Be that as it may, I gather the Senator was under strong pressure to withdraw from the event, and I think he arrived intending to strike a noble blow against terrorism. I have to credit his intention to defend Israel and deny terrorists allies. But I think what he actually did was stride like the worst stereotype of an ill-informed American into a delicate situation and confirm everyone’s prejudices. It strikes me as a terribly squandered opportunity. The audience was prepared to be challenged somewhat. It was not willing to be condescended to.
And to the degree that the incident overshadows the purpose of defending defenseless Christians and defeating ISIS, that’s a shame. As Andrew Doran put it in spontaneous remarks, taking the stage after the Senator departed: “For the love of God, people, can we remember why we’re here?”