Here’s a really good, detailed piece today by Mollie Hemingway, whose reporting and commentary from the Ted Cruz debacle helped make it an issue. She was, and is, a Cruz critic on this, but she asks us all to step back from the high emotions and consider that both sides have good points. Excerpts:
Reports coming out of the In Defense of Christians Summit through its first couple of days were quite positive. The media coverage wasn’t much but the group had gotten a wide variety of Christians to participate, both globally and in the United States. The first sign of trouble came on Wednesday, when the Washington Free Beacon ran a story headlined Cruz Headlines Conference Featuring Hezbollah Supporters.
Many people have criticized that story but let’s remember we’re trying to just look at the best parts of everyone’s arguments. And the best version of this argument is simply that it’s absolutely true that all sorts of Christians in the Middle East have aligned with all sorts of bad guys. It’s something everyone does, sure, (we went with Stalin in World War II, for example) but that’s not a blanket excuse for same.
Syrian Bashar al-Assad is a horrible tyrant. He may be keeping the Christians alive right now, but he’s still a bad guy. Assad has killed who knows how many of his people in recent years, even using chemical weapons and bombs. His forces rape and pillage. Even if he’s protecting Christians currently, he’s also known for killing them.
On the other hand:
For people focused on this issue, the over-arching concern is the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, a shrinking and threatened minority throughout the region. It’s as simple as that. These people are dying out and need help. All people of goodwill should set aside political differences and secondary concerns and focus on saving them, which was the stated goal of the conference.
If you want to talk about all the things these Christians shouldn’t be doing, people who hold to this view say, that’s fine, but the context of when to talk about it and consideration for how such conversations might disrupt the already tenuous ecumenical gathering are in order by sitting U.S. Senators.
Read the whole thing. It’s especially valuable in Mollie’s discussion of the fact that Middle Eastern Christians hold a variety of opinions on Israel, and for different reasons. She talks about how some are quietly supportive (quietly, because their lives would be in danger if their views were known), some are opposed, and some are unhinged fanatics in their hatred. I personally have talked to all three kinds of Middle Eastern Christian. As I have written here before, it was a real lesson to me on how complicated all this is to have spent about half an hour listening to two young Palestinian Christian men in Jerusalem talk in detail about how miserable their lives were under Israeli occupation, and how their options for education and professional advancement were limited by that fact — but then talk with tangible fear about how terrified they were of the prospect of living under Hamas, which would be far, far worse for Christians than Israeli rule.
Here’s an important point: The two men were willing to speak on the record, if I cared to write down their words, about how awful Israeli rule is, but under no condition would they speak on the record about Hamas. Why not? Because, they said, nothing would happen to them if they criticized Israel publicly. They would be beaten up or even killed if they publicly criticized Hamas.
Unsurprisingly, both men wanted to emigrate. They saw no future for themselves in the Holy Land.
Since I first heard of the Cruz stunt, a conversation I had in 2006 over a meal overseas with the Coptic Bishop Thomas has been at the forefront of my mind. I hadn’t brought it up because our conversation was not on the record, and the things he told me could have gotten him killed by Islamists back home in Egypt. I learned just yesterday that he repeated the same basic facts and analysis at a 2008 lecture in Washington — and went home to face calls for his trial and execution.
Just one other story to tell you about these levels, another story that was published as well in the newspapers – I’m not saying anything that’s not published anyway. This is a story that happened in El Fayoum. A young girl converted some time ago to Islam and married a man and lived with him, and then suddenly she ran away from this man. Whatever the reason was. It’s a story that was published. What would be a normal reaction for normal human beings? This girl would go to the court if she wants to divorce her husband, or this woman would go to seek psychological advisors or social advisors. She just would go back to her family to seek refuge and help. But, because this girl was a Christian, she converted, when the rumors came that this girl would return back to her village, suddenly there was an attack on all the Christian villagers in this village. Just simply because a rumor came that this girl will come back to this village, the villagers had to pay the price. Houses were destroyed, shops were robbed, and the story will not stop. Unfortunately the girl was not there. Police had to search for the girl and they found her, took her back to her husband, and she has to live with him the rest of her life. I don’t know according to what will she has to live there.
This is a glimpse of what is happening. What do you expect from a Coptic person who lives under this atmosphere? What do you think would be their reaction? Do I have to protect myself and protect my family? Do I have to open up and go and seek communication with others? I will tell you – we are not a weak church, we are not a weak people, we are a strong people and we will survive. And the love in us, the love is much stronger than hatred. And with this love we can continue and go and work and be integrated into this society and work for the goodness of this society and try to reach out to our fellow brothers and sisters who live in this country. And if the fundamentalists or those who are spoiling the minds of people do not like it, we have to work for it. And we have to find some of the moderates and work with them. We still have some moderate writers – very very very few, but still there are one or two who still can say the truth. But the majority would go for the stereotype propaganda of what the majority wants. And this is what we want to say: that even though we are facing a lot of hardship, still we are not weak because, simply, truth is strong, love is strong, hope is strong and that makes the Christians in Egypt continue. Still, we have a lot of immigration that is happening and coming to this country. We are worried about the large number of immigrants that is leaving Egypt, like all the Middle East, that the Christians are leaving this area. This is a big question mark and this is a big cry for help to let the Christians stay in their own country.
You should read the speech, which is very mild. There is a two-minute bit of Bishop Thomas’s address on YouTube, which is worth seeing and listening to so you can get a sense of how gentle this man is. In our conversation, the bishop spoke in more details about the specific incidents that Copts have to live with day in and day out. It could reduce you to tears, listening to these stories. This is the reality of life for the Christians in Egypt.
After the bishop gave his Washington talk, among the criticisms leveled against him in the Egyptian press was that he was a closet Zionist, spreading lies against Islam on behalf of the international Jewish conspiracy. In 2011, Nina Shea, who had introduced the bishop at the Washington speech, wrote about its aftermath:
In July 2008, Bishop Thomas, the Coptic Orthodox Bishop of El-Qussia Diocese in Upper Egypt, delivered a talk in Washington about the cultural history of his co-religionists, entitled “The Experience of the Middle East’s Largest Christian Community during a Time of Rising Islamization.” His lecture ignited an immediate explosion within Egypt’s government-controlled media and mosques. Muslim Brotherhood members, Salafis, and assorted other Islamists heatedly denounced Thomas in over 200 articles, calling for him to be put on trial for treason and accusing him of supporting a “Zionist plot,” delivering an “insolent denial of a long history of Islamic tolerance,” and other treacheries. At the following Friday prayers, the sheikh of the neighboring Al-Rahma mosque in Qussia threatened violence: “[I say to] you the traitors, there are men among the Muslims who will spill your blood …. [M]y helpers will sever the legs of all those who assist the traitor [Bishop Thomas].”
The angry aftermath, as much as the content of the bishop’s lecture, provides invaluable insight into what we’re seeing in Egypt today—namely, a reinvigorated effort by some of the country’s more radical Islamists to establish Egypt’s identity as a thoroughly Islamicized and Arabicized state. Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who number about 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people and now constitute the largest non-Muslim religious community in Egypt, are the most visible bloc standing in the way of impatient jihadists and violent Salafis, who reject the Muslim Brotherhood’s stated approach of a more gradual and democratic cultural shift. No less an authority than Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s top lieutenant and an Egyptian, was not shy about stating this in a three-part “Message of Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt,” released on websites in late February. In his speech, Zawahiri demonized Copts as “one of Egypt’s main problems” and called Coptic Pope Shenouda a “Zionist traitor.” Since then, a heightened campaign of violence is being directed against Egypt’s Copts and is presaging a mass exodus from the country—an event which, if it transpires, will have devastating effects on the multicultural makeup of the entire Middle East.
Do you understand why it is so difficult for the region’s persecuted Christians to be seen siding with Israel? Bishop Thomas is a man who puts his life on the line every day to speak up for peace and justice and dignity of his persecuted people. His enemies in Egypt are powerful, and think nothing of inventing reasons to persecute him. If Bishop Thomas were to take a public position on Israel, his already extremely difficult position within Egypt would be far more difficult.
I doubt very much that Israel ever crosses Bishop Thomas’s mind; he has far more important things to worry about. The idea that he and Egypt’s Copts would be obliged to take a public position sympathizing with the state of Israel before their plight would be worthy of American concern (Cruz: “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you”) infuriated me, because it brought me back to that breakfast with Bishop Thomas. To sit across the table from a man who has seen anti-Christian persecution, sometimes savage, with his own eyes, and to learn that this is everyday life for the Christians of Egypt — well, to hear an American Christian politician expect people like him to sign their own death warrants as a condition of his solidarity is repulsive.
This is why the incident has made me so damn angry: the utter arrogance of Cruz and his followers, ignorant of what they demand of these Christian peoples who have knives at their throat. I appreciate that Mollie Hemingway can step back and examine both sides in the Cruz dispute dispassionately. Me, I’m still not over it.