When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to Christian audiences about Israel, he’s accustomed to receiving enthusiastic applause whenever he declares his support for the Jewish state.
So, many Americans wonder why he was booed off the stage when he stated in his keynote address to the In Defense of Christians inaugural summit in Washington, D.C., Wednesday night that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”
Isn’t the conference of Middle East Christian leaders, which ends Thursday, about responding to the threat the Islamic jihadist group ISIS poses to the very existence of Christians in the region? And isn’t Israel on the front lines of the war against Islamic supremacism?
Some analysts of Islam and its clash with the West believe the response of the Middle Eastern Christian leaders to Cruz is rooted in a grand bargain their tiny minority has struck with the Arab nationalist and Muslim majority, which has enabled them to survive.
“It is shameful that these Middle Eastern Christians heckled Cruz for standing with Israel,” Robert Spencer writes at his Jihad Watch site. “This is the result of their long historical identification with Muslims as fellow Arabs.”
Spencer says the “Arab nationalist imperative was largely an attempt by Christian Arabs to ease the pain of dhimmitude by creating a secular framework upon which Christians could enjoy equal, or almost equal, status with Muslims.”
Dhimmitude, a term coined by Bat Ye’or, the Egyptian-born British writer and political commentator, is the subjugated status of non-Muslims, particularly Jews and Christians, under Islamic rule, which is ordained by the Quran and subsequent Islamic texts.
Under Syria’s Bashar al-Assad or formerly under Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, for example, Christians have had a relative degree of freedom in comparison to the immediate existential threat from ISIS, which has taken over portions of Syria and Iraq.
Cruz told the gathered crowd at the Omni Shoreham, which included leaders of six historic Christian churches in the Middle East: “Tonight, we are all united in defense of Christians. Tonight, we are all united in defense of Jews. Tonight, we are all united in defense of people of good faith, who are standing together against those who would persecute and murder those who dare disagree with their religious teachings.”
He spoke against a “genocidal campaign” being carried out by Islamic groups such as ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas.
But when he declared, “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” crowd members began to boo, and some shouted, “Stop it!”
Later, in a statement, he expressed disappointment that anti-Semitism had “reared its ugly head” at the conference and explained he had no choice but to leave the stage.
“I told them that if you will not stand with Israel, if you will not stand with the Jews, then I will not stand with you. And then I walked off the stage.”
In a statement, the president of In Defense of Christians, Toufic Baaklini, sought to minimize the response to Cruz, quoting one of the speakers, Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara al-Rahi.
“At every wedding, there are a few wedding crashers,” the president quoted Rahi as saying.
Baaklini said in the statement: “In this case, a few politically motivated opportunists chose to divide a room that for more than 48 hours sought unity in opposing the shared threat of genocide, faced not only by our Christian brothers and sisters, but our Jewish brothers and sisters and people of other all other faiths and all people of good will.”
But Rahi, who spoke during the same keynote slot as Cruz, has called Israel an “enemy state that is occupying Lebanese territory” and has defended Hezbollah’s right to attack the Jewish state, the Washington Free Beacon reported before the conference.
Critics, noting the event featured pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad speakers, feared some would try to use it to bolster Washington’s support for Assad, the Free Beacon said.
Funding for the conference was provided by Clinton donor and Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire Gilbert Chagoury, who pledged $1 billion to the Clinton Global Initiative in 2009, the Free Beacon reported.
According to U.S. diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks, Chagoury also backs Hezbollah’s top Christian ally in the country, Lebanese politician Michel Aoun.
A Daily Caller account of the Cruz speech cited an unnamed Middle East analyst who explained many Christians in the Middle East take issue with Israeli military policy, asserting it has made life difficult for Palestinian Christians, driving many from their homes.
“Israel’s policies have led to demographic pressure that’s made the West Bank and Gaza far more Muslim than in 1948,” the analyst said.
But Spencer believes the Arab nationalist imperative has “meant the utter co-opting of Christian communities in Arab countries: They became politically, culturally and socially indistinguishable from the larger Muslim population.”
“This was because for Muslims, Islam was always the heart of the Arab identity in any case,” he writes.
“Also, farther back than the advent of Arab nationalism, dhimmi communities were also kept apart and at odds with one another,” Spencer notes.
“They were communities of fear, living under an ever-ready threat of death if they got out of line. And so mostly, they didn’t.”
Mark Durie, an Australian scholar of Islam, in his book about Islam and its historic relationship with Christians and Jews, “The Third Choice,” agrees that the general view of Christian leaders in the Middle East toward Israel can only be understood in the context of “dhimmitude,” a term that has been dismissed as a myth and “Islamophobic.”
Durie contends Palestinian Christian leaders suffer from a form of “Stockholm Syndrome” in which they side with their “captors.”
“It is easier to embrace Islam and deny the problem of potential violence, than to face the alternative of fear. It is safer to feel good thoughts about Islam, than to have to deal with hard truths,” Durie writes.
He cites the investigation of Justin Reid Weiner, who found that the human rights situation of Christians living in the Holy Land had deteriorated since the Oslo Accords in 1994 and the establishment of rule under the Palestinian Authority.
Weiner describes a vicious cycle, in which “dhimmis, eager to placate the Muslims and afraid if they do not, identify strongly with Palestinian nationalist aspirations (including anti-Israeli rhetoric).”
This “leads them to deny the persecution of their community,” Weiner contends.
Durie cites a Palestinian Christian cleric who “compared the behavior of Christian dhimmis to that of battered wives and children, who continue to defend and even identify with their tormenter even as the abuse persists.”
Durie also cites Muslim Palestinian writer Abd al-Nasser al-Najjar, who described the confiscation of Christian lands by Muslims in Bethlehem and elsewhere. Al-Najjar said Christians are silent “so as not to attract attention” and when they do attempt to take steps to retrieve their property, they can be subjected to death threats.
Durie noted widespread distrust of religious leaders among Palestinian Christians, who “tell the newspapers that everything is OK.”
As an example, Durie cites Father Labib Kobtl of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who urged rejection of “the propaganda that wants to prove that there were any studied or willed persecution from our Muslims brothers and sisters of the Christians.”
“We consider it mere propaganda against Islam, a cold war against our Muslim brothers that only benefits the Zionists of Israel,” he said.
Durie concludes that displays “of devotion to the Umma (Muslim community) such as this may appear to purchase some degree of temporary immunity from Muslim extremists, but they reinforce the cloak of silence over the sufferings of the Christian community, and contribute to the worsening human rights situation.”
Spencer writes that Middle Eastern Christians at this point in their history “should be able to throw off these old and outmoded cultural attitudes.”
“They need to realize, as does Cruz, that all the communities threatened by jihad and Islamic supremacism need to hang together – or we will most assuredly hang separately.”
No ‘Muslim bashing’
Advisory board members of In Defense of Christians include former Republican U.S. attorney general, governor and senator John Ashcroft; Lebanese-American former secretary of transportation Ray LaHood; and James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and director of the polling firm Zogby Research Services.
Zogby, a speaker at the conference, expressed concern in a commentary published by the Huffington Post that “some of the loudest voices calling for action to defend the Christians in Iraq today come from the far right.”
He lamented President George W. Bush went to war in Iraq, despite “warnings coming from Iraq’s Christians about the impact that the war and the pathetic misguided occupation would have on their communities.”
“This same crowd went deaf again to the plight of Iraq’s Christians during the brutal civil war that followed, with its ‘ethnic cleansing’ that reduced the country’s Christian population from 1.4 million to 400,000,” he said.
Zogby asked: “Does defending Christians mean that Saddam should have been tolerated because he provided more protection for Christians than the sectarian pogroms that followed? Most certainly not. But because those who are now the most strident advocates for a U.S. military-led assault on Iraq and Syria are the very same folks whose policies led to the current crisis, I believe we should, at the very least, be wary of their advocacy.”
Zogby said it’s equally important not to allow the call for action against ISIS “to degenerate into Muslim-bashing.”
“Islamophobes may draw applause from some in Washington, but their inflammatory rhetoric will only harm the fate of Christians in the Middle East,” he said. “In the end, they appear to be more focused on fomenting a ‘clash of civilizations’ than contributing to a reformed and reconstructed Arab World.”
In its purpose statement, In Defense of Christians says it aims to bring “attention in the United States and the western world to the plight of the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.” The group’s advocacy “is narrowly focused on the U.S. foreign policy community, influencing policymakers to promote values abroad that are consistent with the universal human rights of religion and conscience.”
“These values are not exclusively Christian, nor does IDC seek only to protect the human rights of Christians, but all religious groups,” it states. “These rights are universal, applicable to all human persons. In this sense, “Christian” refers not only those who confess the Christian faith, but also Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, and even the freedom to confess no religious belief at all.”
In an interview with WND at the conference, In Defense of Christians media specialist Drew Bowling said Cruz was wrong to inject a political issue into the event.
“What Ted Cruz did was a total surprise to me and to most of the members of the audience. The few members of the audience who reacted that way, I find to be appalling. However, the reality is that 98 percent of that room supports Israel because Israel has created a safe place for Christians in the Middle East,” Bowling said.
“Over the past two days, all of the publicity coming out of this conference has been uniformly positive. We had 17 members of Congress yesterday at the congressional auditorium. Christians of all denominations were coming out and saying things in support of Israel and Christians,” he said.
Bowling said the conference “was supposed to be a moment for people, whatever their denomination and whatever their politics, could come together and highlight this as a human rights issue.”
He said he “can’t speak for what Ted Cruz did or his motives, but the tragedy is that a summit for people who are being slaughtered in an ongoing campaign of genocide by the Islamic state – there are lives at stake.”
“This has now been politicized and that to me is heartbreaking,” Bowling said.
Summit delegate Fuad Joseph Semaan, a Lebanese native who now lives in New Jersey, agreed that Cruz unnecessarily inserted politics into the summit.
“Most of the people in that room are ethnic Arabs, and I believe Senator Cruz was wrong to come into the room and introduce support of Israel as a condition of his support for this summit,” Semaan said.
Semaan also insisted an overwhelming majority of the delegates support Israel, but he said the ethnic issue is a sticking point.
“Some of those people are taught from the time they are children to hate the Jews and to hate Israel. It’s hard to overcome, and that’s why Senator Cruz’s statements were unnecessary. Instead of furthering unity, he introduced division,” Semaan said.
However, Lebanese-born Christian Joseph Hakim, president of the International Christian Union, contended the senator didn’t deserve criticism.
“What Senator Cruz said, there was nothing wrong with it. Christians should know that Israel is their best friend in the Middle East. The problem is that even Arab Christians are taught to hate Israel,” he said.
“That is poison among the Arabs that has to be overcome. So, what Cruz said, I support him and know that he didn’t say anything that any Christian, Arab or otherwise, should disagree with,” Hakim said.
Cruz apparently was aware of his audience before the event. A spokesman, according to the Washington Free Beacon, said the senator would still speak at the conference despite the controversial participants, because he is committed to raising awareness about the persecution of Middle East Christians.
One participant was Ibrahim Amin al-Sayed, president of the Political Council in Hezbollah, and Ghaleb Abou Zeynad, the group’s Christian relations attaché.
Hezbollah, the “Party of Allah, is an Iran-backed, Shiite Islamic militant group and party that was founded by followers of Ayatollah Khomeini after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Another conference speaker, Antioch Church patriarch Gregory III Laham, has claimed a “Zionist conspiracy against Islam” is responsible for al-Qaida attacks on Iraqi Christians.
“It is actually a conspiracy planned by Zionism and some Christians with Zionist orientations, and it aims at undermining and giving a bad image of Islam,” Laham said in 2010, according to the Daily Star of Lebanon.
WND reporter Michael Carl contributed to this report.