The In Defense of Christians Conference IIDC) was held in Washington, DC September 9th through 11th, 2014. Christian leaders concerned about the continuing suffering attended including evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox leaders from the Middle East. Islamist sympathizer James Zogby’s presence as a sponsor of the conference symbolized the difficulty in identifying the foe of Christians in the Middle East. Andrew Harrod attended the conference and reports exclusively to the Religious Freedom Coalition – Editor
Andrew E. Harrod – Exclusive to Religious Freedom Coalition
“Few people spoke the truth” that current Middle East Islamic “barbarism…is based on the Quran,” Sister Hatune Dogan, a Christian who fled her native Turkey, criticized the recently concluded In Defense of Christians (IDC) summit. Like Dogan, IDC participants consistently referenced Islamic persecution while pro-Israel keynote speaker Senator Ted Cruz received boos, events indicating strategic confusion among beleaguered Middle Eastern Christian minorities.
Casual conversation with Lebanese-American Christians at the summit breakfast on September 10, the first full conference day, at Washington, DC’s Omni Shoreham Hotel, set the tone for subsequent events. The Lebanese expatriates speculated about Islam as an “anti-Christ” faith given its condemnation of Christian tenets while dismissing democracy amidst Muslim-majority societies in light of authoritarian sharia. Against overthrowing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, they foreshadowed Congressman Jim McGovern’s later comments at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center that Middle Eastern “iron rule” had offered a “certain degree of protection” to “religiously pluralistic countries.”
“Martyrdom in life, and even in death,” is historically a “permanent feature” of Middle East churches that “struggled to perpetuate their existence,” Catholicos Aram I Keshishian, stated in apparent agreement during his keynote morning address. Today “Christianity is on the verge of disappearing from the Middle East,” the Lebanon-based Armenian Holy See of Cilicia head warned during a subsequent September 11 panel, a “terrible blow” enabling “intolerant ideologies and terrorism.”
“Our churches remained faithful to their God-given…mission of love” despite repression, Keshishian’s keynote address had noted, and “became the pioneers of…human dignity” in the region’s development. “Christians played a significant part in promoting Arab nationalism,” for example, his panel remarks recalled, yet a “second-class status in the Arab world” had always “marginalized” them. “Crucial for the future of Christianity in the Middle East” and a “bulwark against extremism,” Keshishian assessed, is thus a pluralistic “culture of life,” something that must go beyond “cosmetic and counterproductive” democratization.
Yet some want to “regress into a primal and medieval state” not seen “since the atrocities of Genghis Khan,” Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom Bishop Angaelos observed on September 10. A “vehicle for certain ends,” democracy “has been given to countries that are not ready for it,” Angaelos cautioned individuals like Keshishian while reflecting upon the suffering of Angaelos’ fellow Egyptian Copts. Current Muslim mayhem in Iraq and Syria “would have been the case in Sinai today” had the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) continued ruling Egypt.
After Middle East Christians “received as liberators” against oppressive Byzantine rule seventh century “Muslim invaders,” Christians helped establish the Muslim state, Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II reviewed on the September 11 panel with Angaelos and Keshishian. Christians played a leading role translating Syriac and Greek texts into Arabic, establishing printing presses, and founding universities, the Syriac Orthodox Church patriarch for Sister Hatune and others elaborated. Yet Islam’s “heavy jizya poll tax” on Christians and others ultimately compelled conversion to Islam, merely a persecution precursor to Ottoman Empire Christian genocides whose centenary is in 2015. Current Christian genocide “did not just begin,” Congresswoman Anna Eshoo stated on Capitol Hill while also recalling 1915, but is a “repeat of the history of my family,” whose Middle Eastern forebears told the “same stories.”
Today “international protection has become necessary” in a “life or death situation” for Christians, Aphrem similarly told a September 5 “High Level Delegation” from Hezbollah, an ominous meeting for a September 11 Washington Free Beacon (WFB) story. Aphrem called for Hezbollah to affirm “vividly the values of living together…in the Middle East” where Christians “have a good relationship of love…with their neighbors.” Muslims must thus “live up to…texts” like Quran 49:13 while reinterpreting Quran verses and other Islamic texts supporting dhimmi restrictions on non-Muslims like jizya, he said at IDC. Asserting that groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) “do not represent true Muslim teachings” and “are hijacking Islam” received light applause.
“It is time for you to stand up” in condemning ISIS atrocities, Syriac Catholic Church Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan similarly demanded of Muslim leaders. Younan noted how Christians and Jews receive honor as “People of the Book” in some Quran verses, condemnation as apostates in others. “Separation of religion and state” following the “example of Lebanon” or the United States where “all confessions are respected” is necessary throughout the Middle East for oppressed Muslim and non-Muslim minorities alike.
Yet “no difference” existed between the doctrine of groups like ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood motto, Younan observed, namely “Allah is our objective, the prophet is our leader, the Quran is our law, jihad is our way.” Among the “consistent defenders of the Assad regime” criticized by the WFB story on Hezbollah and other nefarious connections to IDC’s “Dhimmi conference at the service of Iran, Assad and Hezbollah,” Younan criticizes Middle East democratization. Western efforts “promoting democracy or pluralism” in the region appeared to Younan in a 2013 interview as a “lie” merely hiding strategies “to split Syria and other countries.”
“We are not siding…with Assad,” but “with the Syrian people,” Younan had stated in opposing the Syrian dictator’s overthrow in light of rising Islamic sectarianism from Iraq to Libya. A “so-called Western democracy” is impossible in Middle Eastern countries where Islam for most is the preferred basis of social and political life. Middle Eastern democratization efforts in the past 20 years “were very much harming our very existence,” Younan said of the region’s Christian communities.
The Damascus-based patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham, meanwhile, could have been an Assad spokesman. “At the root of all our problems” in the Middle East demanding solution “without foreign intervention” is conflict with Israel, Laham stated in his September 10 morning address along with Angaelos and Keshishian. “We call upon America to be peacemakers…not war makers,” Laham reiterated on the September 11 morning panel, as, along with economic sanctions, “war has not succeeded in the Middle East.”
Deemed Assad’s “ally politically and financially” by a French bishop in 2013 noted by WFB, Laham caused “great embarrassment to Rome” according to a Vatican insider with a 2012 call for papal recognition of Palestine. Middle East “violence…against Christians…has nothing to do with Islam,” Laham stated in 2010, but “is actually a conspiracy planned by Zionism and some Christians with Zionist orientations…giving a bad image of Islam.” “[D]epicting Arabs and Muslims…as terrorist and fundamentalist murderers” serves “to deny them their rights and especially those of the Palestinians.” At IDC, Laham was prominent in denouncing Cruz.
By contrast, Christians and Muslims “ought to remain together…to build a better world” with the “best aspects” of their faiths, Laham’s various IDC comments proclaimed. “Creative unity” among Arabs for the “preservation of Arabness” and “cultural pluralism” should allow for Middle Eastern “co-citizenship” and “freedom of worship.” “Absolutely” rejecting the Middle East as the “home of religious fundamentalism,” Laham called upon Muslims to “reconcile…sharia with modern demands.”
“Grateful” for international intervention in Iraq, by contrast, was Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Mar Bechara Boutros Raï at the September 10 Capitol Hill briefing. “Jihadism is an ideology…a threat to Islam itself” and ultimately to Western societies, he warned speaking of ISIS. Yet for “Hezbollah…to carry arms in defense of its land” against “Israel…an enemy state” is “right,” according to Raï’s past statements. Similar to Laham, Raï sees current Shiite-Sunni conflict resulting from Israeli attempts “to divide the Middle East” into “sectarian states so that Israel can live in peace” with “justification” as a “Jewish state.” “[T]o address together the growing concerns about possible infiltration in Lebanon” of ISIS, meanwhile, Raï announced in August his willingness to meet Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah.[button link=”http://christmas4refugees.org” text=”Make Christmas possible for a Christian refugee child” size=”small” alt=”off”]
IDC demonstrated that “Middle Eastern Christians are divided by a complicated tangle of local alliances which invariably fail to protect them, but do manage to divide them,” as journalist Daniel Greenfield assessed. A historically resulting “Arab nationalist imperative,” elaborated Islam scholar Robert Spencer, “was largely an attempt by Christian Arabs” for a “secular…equal, or almost equal, status with Muslims.” This entailed Christian Arabs seeking “to prove themselves by affirming their loyalty to a pan-Arab identity…in the forefront of the war against Zionism and the Jews,” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin noted.
Such pan-Arabism contributed to prevalent Arab anti-Semitism. Even at IDC, writer John Puder noted that “Palestine and the Holy Land, but never explicitly Israel” appeared in “conference proceedings and…literature.” Yet “98 percent of” Cruz’s audience “supports Israel because Israel has created a safe place for Christians in the Middle East,” IDC’s Drew Bowling commented after a minority had booed the senator. “Christians should know that Israel is their best friend in the Middle East,” International Christian Union President Joseph Hakim, a Lebanese Christian, said after viewing “nothing wrong” in Cruz’s address. That “even Arab Christians are taught to hate Israel” is a “poison…to be overcome.” Whether Christian or Jew, “all…threatened by jihad and Islamic supremacism need to hang together—or…will most assuredly hang separately,” Spencer accurately judged.