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US Conservative Contempt For Arab Christians

For the right-wing outrage machine, Arabs are the wrong kind of Christians.

Look at this sickening thing that Josh Greenman found online. Breitbart has since removed the scare quotes from the headline, but this is how it first went up:

I remember when my wife and I began worshiping with the Maronites in Brooklyn back in 1999. It struck me one day that these people’s ancestors in Lebanon were worshiping Jesus Christ when my ancestors back in northern Europe were still praying to trees. It was shocking, and embarrassing, to discover how little I knew about Arab Christianity — and in turn how these ancient Christian communities didn’t really exist in the minds of most American Christians.

The politics of the Middle East are tangled and almost impossible to understand. Many Maronites despise the Palestinians, for example, blaming them for destroying Lebanon. Within Lebanon, there is no love lost between Maronites, who are Catholics, and the Orthodox. But many Maronites are fond, however grudgingly, of the Israelis, because they see them as the enemies of their enemies, the Palestinians. But not all Maronites feel that way. It’s complicated. Insanely complicated. And everybody suffers from the same conspiracy theorizing that is common currency in the Middle East.

You will appreciate, then, what a diplomatic feat it was to bring a group of top Christian leaders from the Middle East together in Washington for a summit to talk about the crisis of the persecution of Christians in the region. The Washington Free Beacon shamefully characterized the event as a pro-Hezbollah hootenanny, citing the anti-Israel politics of some conference participants as if that were the most important thing about this religious and human rights event. As if Israelis were the only people in the Middle East whose suffering matters.

And then, Sen. Ted Cruz showed up at the conference and made a fool of himself, lecturing these Middle Eastern Christians on what they ought to think about Israel. TAC’s Jon Coppage was there. Excerpt from his report:

When Cruz took the stage, however, after two days of declarations of Christian unity and recognition of the widespread persecution of peoples of all faiths, his remarks emphasized his devotion to the state of Israel. The crowd applauded faithfully as Cruz made the argument that ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, as well as Syria and Iran, were all equal participants in genocidal bigotry. Cruz then transitioned. After saying, “Our purpose here tonight is to highlight a terrible injustice. A humanitarian crisis. Christians, are being systematically exterminated,” Cruz then turned to the 1948 formation of Israel, a sensitive subject for many Palestinian Christians, and declared that ”today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state.”

It was at that point that some in the audience objected to Cruz turning a celebration of Christian unity into a lecture on a divisive subject that many in the crowd experienced as part of their everyday lives. Cruz returned accusations of hatred. Even then, most of the crowd tried to reconcile with him as Cruz continued on to speak about “Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals [applause] who seek to—[applause]. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ [applause].” As he continued to press the issue, however, the crowd increasingly urged him to “move on” and booed, leading him to lament those “consumed with hate” and depart.

Anti-Semitism among Christians, Arab and otherwise, is appalling, but it doesn’t sound like that’s what was at issue here. Ted Cruz came to this event apparently seeking to score points with a domestic US political constituencies at the expense of the desperate need for international Christian solidarity in the face of horrendous persecution by ISIS and other radical Islamic groups. To add to the insult, now Breitbart, a leading website of movement conservatism, questions the Christianity of these Arab men and women in that Washington room.

This is beyond infuriating. Arab Christians in the Middle East face persecution and death every day, simply because they are Christian. And this Dr. Susan Berry person on Breitbart distorts the truth — saying that Cruz was booed because he supported Israel, when in fact he was booed because he turned his speech into a pro-Israel lecture to a hostile audience — and then writes as if the only thing worth knowing about the Christians in that audience is that some of them had met with Hezbollah.

It was a disgusting smear by Berry and Breitbart, same as Alana Goodman’s smear in the WFB. I say that as someone who in no way shares the antipathy of these Christians for Israel. Five Christian patriarchs of persecuted Christian peoples came to the United States to meet and to talk about what their people are suffering, and these right-wing jackals, including Sen. Cruz, jumped them and tried to trash and exploit them for American political purposes.

The admirable Mollie Hemingway criticized her fellow conservatives for what they did to the Arab Christian leaders here. Excerpt:

One can certainly argue in support of Cruz’s statement — politically, at least — and yet also recognize how fraught the topic is for Christians in the region.

While the case absolutely can and should be made that support for Israel does help the fight against Christian persecution, it would be naive and wrong for Christians to think that the United States has their interests at heart globally (or domestically, it seems!). And the United States has no governmental obligation to help out the Christians who are dying in the Middle East, although it would be wonderful if we could stop doing things that lead so quickly to their persecution. But I do wonder if some hawks misunderstand or underestimate American Christian sentiment about our brothers and sisters in Christ at their peril.

I doubt it. Ted Cruz and the others know who they are speaking to: politically conservative Evangelicals. Daniel Larison:

An important point that has been lost in many of the reactions to this incident is that Cruz was completely out of line to set some kind of ideological litmus test for the attendees that requires them to endorse the “pro-Israel” views that Cruz happens to hold. Cruz is free to hold those views, and many of his voters agree with him, but it is obnoxious to demand that others, including many Arab Christian clergy in attendance, subscribe to those views in order to obtain Cruz’s sympathy for their plight. Not only is “standing with Israel” irrelevant to the reason for the summit, but as this incident has proven it is a completely unnecessary distraction from the work of the organization that sponsored the event.

The Orthodox Christian writer Seraphim Danckaert takes Cruz to school:

The phrase that ignited the disagreement is particularly telling: “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”

What kind of worldview or theological bias would allow for such a statement? Only one that presumes there is a definite conformity between the needs and desires of Christians everywhere and the Middle East policy of the United States of America. It seems to me, in other words, that when Ted Cruz says “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” he really means that “America has no greater ally than Israel” — and that the subjects of those two sentences are identical in his mind.

Such an idea, so disconnected from the personal suffering and experiences of the actual Christians who live in the Middle East, found little sympathy in a Washington, D.C. ballroom crowded with Christians from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and surrounding lands.

Mark Tooley explains further:

Sometimes American Christians romanticize overseas persecuted Christians into disembodied noble souls unaffected by terrestrial concerns. But they, like everybody else, have histories, loyalties, resentments, grievances, and political calculations. Generally, most Mideast Christians cannot further imperil themselves by ever seeming politically to sympathize with Israel or the West. But their notions are not just for appearances. Many Mideast Christians are Arab nationalists. And whether for survival or genuine sympathy, some church leaders over the years have aligned with repressive regimes, like Assad’s and Saddam’s.

It happens. So what? They deserve to be killed by ISIS because they don’t support Israel, or US policy in the Mideast? They deserve to be spited and mocked and used by a US Republican senator from Texas who now has the footage he needs to make a campaign commercial, and to pull in donations from home state megachurches? Meanwhile, the Christians of the Middle East, who have been worshiping there since the days Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth, are slowly being ground down to nothing. But hey, the American right-wing media machine took what it wanted out of the Christian patriarchs’ backsides, so it’s all cool, right?

UPDATE: To be clear, many Middle Eastern Christians say and believe crazy and/or appalling things, especially about Jews and Israelis. I’ve heard them with my own ears. Some of it is based in plausible truth; much of it is based in hate and conspiracy theory. I can’t defend it and wouldn’t dream of defending it. That said, Ted Cruz coming into this particular conference and using it as an opportunity to lecture these imperiled people on their moral and political failings vis-a-vis Israel would be like going to a conference of New Orleans religious leaders a month after Katrina and lecturing them on how the Bush administration is the best friend they could have. Even if it were true, it would have been extremely insensitive and obnoxious to do such a thing. Do we expect suffering and endangered people to pass a political, cultural, or religious litmus test before we deem them worthy of our help? If a man is standing on the roof of his house that is underwater in a flood, and you are standing in a rescue boat, you don’t tell him how he ought to think about politics and expect him to agree as a condition of saving his life.