Senator Ted Cruz wants the US to accept only Christian refugees from Syria and other ISIL-ravaged countries in the Middle East, reports Amy Davidson in the New Yorker. This is curious, because his past actions tell a different story than his recent words.
A little over a year ago, on Sep 10, 2014, Cruz was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at a conference hosted by In Defense of Christians (IDC) to support solidarity among Middle Eastern and international leaders in support of Christians being persecuted by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Cruz began, not by addressing the problem of Iraqi Christians persecuted—beheaded, crucified, raped, and driven from their ancestral homes—by ISIL, but by lumping ISIL together with Al Qaeda, Palestinian groups like Hamas and Hezbollah and with the secular government of Syria. “ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, and their state sponsors like Syria and Iran, are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East,” Cruz said (incorrectly). “Sometimes we are told not to lump these groups together, but we have to understand their so-called nuances and differences….”
There is a reason “we are told not to lump these groups together,” and it’s because they are different. Germane to the IDC conference at which Cruz was speaking, they maintain attitudes different than ISIL’s toward Christians and other religious minorities. Syrian Christians, in particular, view the secular Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad to be their protector against violence from Salafist Muslims. Similarly, Palestinian Christians rarely accept the Israeli occupation of their homeland, since they associate it with Israeli settlement and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, as well as violence against civilian targets. Palestinian Christians often support the efforts of various groups to end Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Cruz, of course, was speaking to Christians from the Middle East—Christians from Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Armenia—who are extremely sensitive to the differences between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam, between Salafist Islam and moderate expressions of Islam, between Hamas—a Sunni, Palestinian organization—and Hezbollah—a Shi’a, Lebanese organization. They are sensitive because they live there (or, in many cases, lived there before they were forced out by ISIL); these differences are everyday life for them.
Nevertheless, Cruz acknowledged warnings not to lump these groups together and then promptly ignored them among Christians with whom it would be prudent to heed those warnings. Needless to say, Cruz’s Middle Eastern Christian audience was not pleased with his diplomatic skills. The Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) reported, “Cruz implied that the government of Syria was no better than ISIS or al-Qaida,” to a crowd that included Syrian and Palestinian Christians, and “insisted that ‘Christians have no greater ally than Israel,’ at which point members of the crowd began to yell ‘stop it’ and booed him.”
Instead of speaking about Christian persecution, the topic which delegates traveled from around the world to address, the senator brought up the 1948 creation of the state of Israel…. This caused a strong negative response from the audience, whose families are in the Middle East, where Palestinian Christians have suffered greatly this past year in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At first, Cruz continued undeterred. “Let me say this: those who hate Israel hate America. And those who hate Jews hate Christians.”
The booing got louder.
Cruz pressed on, adding that his heart “weeps that the men and women here will not stand in solidarity with Jews and Christians alike who are persecuted by radicals who seek to murder them.”
IDC’s president Toufic Baaklini tried to calm the crowd, which appeared to have a divided reaction to Cruz’s words, but by that point Cruz had had enough. “I am saddened to see some here, not everyone, but some here are so consumed with hate,” he said (to which someone in the audience shouted, “We are not consumed with hate, no, you are consumed with hate”).“If you will not stand with Israel and Jews, then I will not stand with you,” Cruz said. “Thank you and God bless you.”
With that, Cruz walked off stage.
Metropoulos reflected on the crowd’s reaction:
If I had not been there myself, I would have a difficult time understanding what actually transpired. It was not just a band of a few politically motivated people who were trying to take advantage of the situation. Hundreds of gala attendees were shouting at the top of their lungs for the senator to change the subject or to leave — and he did the latter.
Metropoulos goes on to disagree “with the methods of those who shouted down a sitting United States Senator, calling on him to leave the stage.” Even so, he is baffled that an accomplished politician “was not prepared to address such a distinguished body of clergy and lay people from around the world on the topic of Christian genocide.” Many Christians continue to be understandably hurt and angered by Cruz’s insensitivity.
IDC president Toufic Baaklini issued a statement and blamed the disturbance on
a few politically motivated opportunists [who] 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.
Cruz is nowhere mentioned in Baaklini’s statement, and one can infer that he is one of the “few politically motivated opportunists” who “were made no longer welcome.”
According to Dias, “At its core, Cruz’s problem was one of context. …[H]e pinned his remarks to the conflict between Israel and Hamas when one of the group’s primary agenda points was actually the plight of Iraqi Christians.” She notes that world Christianity is not uniform: “The American evangelicals Cruz typically addresses tend to be worlds apart historically, culturally, theologically, and politically from the Christian leaders in attendance…, [who] are the Rick Warrens, Cardinal Dolans, and even Pope Francises of their own Eastern [Christian] communities….”
Dias nails the central question: “Whether or not Cruz meant to rile up the crowd to rally his own base or whether it was all a giant mistake is hard to parse.” The ambiguity gives Cruz plausible deniability. Did he know his comments would strike a nerve? Or was he just naively ignorant of the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians and their real lives? OCN commented that Cruz’s remarks display either arrogance or ignorance:
Given his comments, and his response to the people who reacted by booing, it appears Cruz has no meaningful exposure to the actual experience of Middle Eastern Christians, nor does it seem he is even aware that there are millions of Middle Eastern Christians (and Jews, for that matter) who are strongly opposed to the official political and military policies of the modern state of Israel. …It seems …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.
Perhaps Cruz was both ignorant and arrogant?
One of the other speakers at the IDC conference, James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, described Cruz’s actions as “bizarre” but “expected.” Dias quotes him as saying:
Like most other blind ideologues on the far right, he cared not a bit for the reality and the sensitivities of Middle East Christians…. If policy makers want to help Christians, they will first listen to them, before they try to lecture them. Having an “I love Israel, and I don’t care about the rest of the Arab World” mindset may work in US politics, but it’s why we are in the mess we are in across the region.
A different caliber of man would have prepared remarks that were respectful of the audience that invited him to speak. A different caliber of man, having failed to properly prepare, would have changed course once his remarks began to provoke such an emotional response in a suffering and persecuted minority. A different caliber of man would have used the opportunity to listen and learn. Cruz is not a man of that caliber.
This brings us back to the present and Cruz’s apparent desire to give Christians from the Middle East asylum. It is hard to believe that he really does want that. When faced with real, live Christians from Syria and the Middle East, Cruz abused them to score political points with his evangelical base in the US. It sounds like he’s doing the same thing again now and hopes we won’t notice his hypocrisy.
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