Eastern Christians meet with Obama, call for solidarity in the face of persecution

“In Defense of Christians” summit concluded yesterday, after Sen. Cruz’s controversial remarks on Wednesday.

Eight Eastern Christian leaders met yesterday with President Barack Obama, at the close of a three-day conference in Washington, DC aimed at strengthening ties between Christian communities in the Middle East and at raising awareness about the dangers faced by those communities.

From Catholic News Service:

“We felt how deeply moved [Obama] was by what was happening to the Christians there,” Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch, said at a Mass later the same day at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church. …

The cardinal said each of the leaders from Eastern Catholic and Orthodox rites had a chance to speak individually to Obama, who the White House said “dropped by National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s meeting at the White House.”

Although the White House did not release details of the discussion, throughout the summit the Christian leaders spoke of the threat to Christians and other minorities posed by Islamic State militants, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Several said they were advocating religious freedom, an inherent right. They spoke of the need for local leaders and the international community to become involved in a solution because, as one Orthodox bishop said, “no one can possibly agree to a beheading.”

A White House statement, read out near the end of the In Defense of Christians summit, said Obama reinforced the U.S. commitment to fight Islamic State militants and other groups that threaten the Middle East, as well as American personnel and interests in the region. …

“The president emphasized that the United States recognizes the importance of the historic role of Christian communities in the region and of protecting Christians and other religious minorities throughout the Middle East,” the statement said.

The In Defense of Christians summit was the site of a historic first: the gathering of all the Christian patriarchs of the Middle East in the US, according to Rebecca Teti, who was in attendance. She writes at Catholic Vote that the leaders were able “to meet together to present a unified voice in Washington as advocates for their people across the Middle East.”

These are people who have serious internecine and theological squabbles amongst themselves and don’t easily mix, but IDC got them to Washington under a promise of keeping things as apolitical as possible in the circumstances and focusing on defending Christians, not tackling political resolution of Mid-East tensions – on which the churches themselves do not agree.

Most of the proceedings of the three-day event were overshadowed in the media, however, by Sen. Ted Cruz’s appearance at the IDC gala dinner on Wednesday evening. A few minutes into what was supposed to be the evening’s keynote address, Cruz stated, “Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” and was met with boos from some in the audience in response. From the Daily Caller:

“Those who hate Israel hate America,” [Cruz] continued, as the boos and calls for him to leave the stage got louder. “Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target Jews for their faith, for the same reason.”

The cries of “stop it, stop it, enough,” and booing continued. “Out, out, leave the stage!” At this point IDC’s president, Toufic Baaklini, came out to the stage to ask for the crowd to listen to Cruz, but Cruz had already had enough.

“If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he said. “Then I will not stand with you. Good night, and God bless.” And with that, he walked off the stage.

In a statement released after the event, Cruz said the evening had “deteriorated into a shameful display of bigotry and hatred.” “They cannot shout down the truth,” he said. “And we should not shy away from expressing the truth, even in the face of – especially in the face of – ignorance and bigotry.”

In its own statement, IDC expressed regret that “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 all other faiths and all people of good will. Tonight’s injection of politics when the focus should have been on unity and faith, momentarily played into the hands of a few who do not adhere to IDC’s principles.  They were made no longer welcome.”

Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour, speaking to Catholic News Service, criticized Sen. Cruz for making support for Israel a “litmus test” for standing with his fellow Christians.

“Christians don’t ally themselves to any state,” said Bishop Mansour. “We are not allied to the state — to the United States or to Iraq, or to Syria. …

Bishop Mansour, who said he liked Cruz personally, told CNS: “I ran after him, and I saw him, face to face, as you and I are talking. He was very upset.”

But he pointed out that many in the audience at the gala dinner were Palestinian Christians.

“Come on, you have to talk to your audience, you have to talk to the people who are here. I felt that showed a great insensitivity on his part,” said Bishop Mansour, whose comments were echoed by others in attendance.

“We’ve been very careful, all the organizers and everybody involved,” said Bishop Mansour. “The only one who was not very careful was Sen. Cruz.”


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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.