This week, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) slandered a group of Middle Eastern Christians who were trying to raise awareness of their struggle to avoid a genocide in the Middle East. His cynical grandstanding was rightly condemned — but he was hardly alone.
Cruz agreed to speak to this group, which included bishops of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, ostensibly out of solidarity, but took the occasion to antagonize them over their insufficient praise for Israel, then smeared them as anti-Semites before dropping the mic.
The Washington Free Beacon publicized this flameout — their publisher said the room was "full of anti-Semites" — while other conservative outlets sensationalized it in a way to drastically reduce sympathy for persecuted Christians in the region. By the middle of Thursday night, Breitbart was putting the word "Christian" in quotes.
This was a shameless exercise in punching down at some of the most powerless people in the Middle East. It's doubly a shame because the conference, dubbed "In Defense of Christians," was the rarest of rare events, featuring all the major religious leaders of Arab Christians who are at the mercy of fanatics like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
In fact, Cruz received applause from the crowd when he invoked the defense of Jews and Israel. (You can listen to the speech here). But the crowd began to turn on him when he made the speech entirely about Israel, specifically when he said, "Today, Christians have no greater ally than the Jewish state."
Is Israel really the greatest ally of Christians in the region? Israel is a noble, proud, modern country. Its citizens enjoy a democratic state that has been made much safer over the last two decades, enabling Christians from around the world to visit Christian holy sites in Israel. And of course, ISIS lumps together Christians and Jews on its list of targets.
But Israel has not been particularly helpful to Christians in the Middle East. One would imagine their "greatest ally" would welcome Christian refugees escaping violence, or endeavor a military campaign to beat back the group that is crucifying and beheading them. The Kurds do those things. So do the Americans. The Israelis do not. No one should blame them for this, it is just the reality of their national interest. But neither should anyone claim anything more on their behalf.
Furthermore, Israel occasionally antagonizes Middle Eastern Christians. Last year, Israel bulldozed the home of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal. Meanwhile, Palestinian Christians in the occupied territories don't have free access to Christian holy sites.
The Free Beacon has an odd tic when it comes to Christians in the Middle East. Last year, critics of a potential U.S. intervention in Syria pointed out that Syrian rebels were allied with Islamists who were killing Syrian Christians and kidnapping Christian bishops and nuns. In response the Free Beacon published a report, based on the testimony of refugees against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, asserting that the regime was bad for Christians, too. It was a warped piece of moral equivalence. The article admitted that Christian cities were being invaded by the al-Nusra Front and other Islamists (who would eventually become ISIS), but appeared to castigate them for rallying to the dictator that traditionally defended them.
The Free Beacon's article portraying this week's summit of religious leaders and other concerned Christians — including D.C. Cardinal Archbishop Donald Wuerl — as a gathering of Israel-haters was tendentious in the extreme. In describing Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai as an unqualified Hezbollah supporter, the Free Beacon even linked to a report that shows him being criticized by pro-Hezbollah newspapers. His supposedly damning crime of opening the door to meet with Hezbollah was actually an attempt to initiate talks about defending themselves against violent Islamists — the very ones in Syria that the Free Beacon was so nonchalant about — nay, enthused about — a year earlier.
The Christian city of Homs in Syria lost nearly one-third of its Christian population when Islamist fighters came riding on the coattails of the Free Syrian Army, the one that so enamors hawkish Western journalists. Nearly half a million Christians there were scattered like sand blown over a dune. Cities like Ghassanieh were entirely cleansed of their Christian population when al-Nusra and rebel groups stormed in. Overall, between 2004 and 2011, the population of Chaldo-Assyrian Christians fell from over a million to as few as 150,000.
Only the most callous, morally obtuse nitpicker could complain that people escaping ISIS and their ilk sometimes hide behind unsavory authoritarians. Especially when these same critics were so blase about al-Nursa and willfully ignorant about ISIS when they were advocating the Syrian rebel cause.
Why do this? It seems some right-wing hawks simply cannot forgive Middle Eastern Christians for existing at all. In this respect, Jonathan Tobin's article at Commentary was instructive.
Jews and Christians have always suffered under Muslim rule as Dhimmi, persecuted minorities that are nonetheless protected from murder so long as they accede to their second-class citizen status. In the 20th century, some Christians sought to prove themselves by affirming their loyalty to a pan-Arab identity that placed them in the forefront of the war against Zionism and the Jews. But the idea that their opposition to Israel could protect them against Muslim extremism was a tragic mistake.
Today, Christians find themselves under tremendous pressure in a region where true freedom of religion only really exists in Israel. Yet some who claim to represent Christians are once again outspoken in their hate for Israel and even absurdly blaming the Jews for their plight at the hands of hostile Palestinian Islamists. Instead of making common cause with Jews who are also targeted because of their faith, some Christian groups have become among the most outspoken advocates of hate against Israel. [Commentary]
Here's what actually happened: The members of these shrinking Christian minorities joined pan-Arab movements precisely because these were the only political movements they could join. They were the only non-Islamist game in town, and it had nothing to do with anti-Zionism. And of course, as Tobin concedes, only "some" Christians joined, hardly all of the hundreds of thousands who have been fleeing their homes in the last decade.
The "freedom of religion" that Tobin says exists only in Israel is not available to Arab Christians from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, or Iraq. Throwing it in their face is a non sequitur. Israel would not accept the hundreds of thousands of Christians fleeing their ancient homelands. So how exactly would these Christians make common cause with Israel?
Tobin alleges that these Christians are spreading anti-Semitic propaganda, even though all the reporting from the event has relayed that these religious leaders spent two days reciting and rallying to liberal principles, and calling for the defense of Muslim minorities and Jews as well as their own flocks. But that was not enough.
Tobin then calls these Christian leaders of the Middle East — a group that represents a vanishing, powerless minority facing genocide and ethnic cleansing — "a hate group masquerading as victims."
What to say in response? To look upon the displacement of over a million Christians, to listen to the death rattle of Christianity in the Middle East, and complain that they didn't flatter a country that offers them no material assistance is, frankly, the reaction of a sociopath.
The political movement to get Americans to care about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians was a fragile one. This was always a difficult task for the reasons French philosopher Régis Debray outlines; the victims are too religious to excite the left and too foreign to excite the right. And by exploiting his credibility among conservative Evangelicals, Ted Cruz's calumnious goading and showboating at this conference gave this movement a political decapitation, telling conservatives that it's perfectly ok to ignore these people.
The Washington Free Beacon, which sensationalized the video, is also responsible. As is the prominent columnist of one of America's most influential neoconservative periodicals. It won't be forgotten.