A Washington conference aimed at spotlighting persecution of Christians in the Middle East collapsed Wednesday evening when Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was booed off the stage for his support of Israel, whose Jewish citizens he said were equal victims of Islamic extremist persecution.
Cruz was the keynote speaker at a dinner concluding the In Defense of Christians conference held in the capital to bring attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq, Syria and other areas of the Middle East where Islamic extremist forces are demanding non-Muslims either pay a special tax, convert or face execution.
Before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Episcopal News Agency reported, “Iraq was home to about 1.5 million Christians (5 percent of the population), who had lived there for almost 2,000 years. Since then, the Christian population has hemorrhaged out of Iraq, as elsewhere in the regional cradle of Christianity.”
Speaking in Australia last month, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby declared, “the behavior of the ISIS jihadis in Syria and northern Iraq is particularly savage,” saying “we cannot allow these atrocities to be unleashed with impunity.”
Some of the religious and political differences that spilled over Wednesday evening were apparent before the IDC event kicked off. Writing in a Huffington Post essay, IDC advisory board member James Zogby, who is also a vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, highlighted some of the underlying tensions.
He wrote he would support the conference, adding, “What should also be of concern are those who either want to defend only some Christians — ignoring for example, the hardships faced by Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation — or those whose advocacy is limited exclusively to Christians.”
Zogby, who is president of the Arab American Institute and a co-founder of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, added, “I cannot imagine Palestine without its Arab Christian community. All too often, American evangelicals come to the Holy Land to see the sights, while ignoring the indigenous Christians struggling to survive in the face of an unrelenting occupation.”
According to Religion News Service, “The episode highlighted a central tension between U.S. evangelicals, who strongly support Israel, and Middle Eastern Christians — including thousands of Palestinian Christians — who hold Israel responsible for expropriated Arab lands and the death toll in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In Cruz’s remarks, as transcribed by the Assyrian International News Agency, the Texas senator first noted, “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 to disagree with their religious teachings.”
While those comments drew applause, the approbation quickly turned to disdain when Cruz, elected to the Senate in 2010 and touted in some quarters as a potential 2016 GOP Presidential candidate, asserted, “today Christians have no better ally than the Jewish state.”
Those words were greeted with boos and catcalls to “stop it.” Still, Cruz declared, “the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target and murder Jews for their faith for the same reason.”
Along with Muslim and Christian victims, Islamic extremists in Syria captured a Jewish journalist, Steven Sotloff, who held both American and Israeli citizenship. Sotloff was beheaded last week, and the Miami Herald reported there were strenuous efforts made to conceal Sotloff’s identity from his captors.
A statement Cruz released through his office about Wednesday’s incident stated: “Tonight in Washington should have been a night of unity as we came together for the inaugural event for a group that calls itself ‘In Defense of Christians.’ Instead, it unfortunately deteriorated into a shameful display of bigotry and hatred.”
At the event, media reports indicated, organizers tried to calm the crowd, but to no avail.
“For the love of God, we’re here to talk about Christians, and we’re here to be united,” exclaimed Andrew Doran, executive director of the IDC group, according to The Daily Caller.
Cruz, in his statement, said, “After just a few minutes, I had no choice. 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.”
The Assyrian news agency report included comments from IDC president Toufic Baaklini, who maintained “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 ... all other faiths and all people of good will,” according to the report.
Baaklini’s statement asserted Wednesday’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.”
Although national media attention largely focused on Cruz’s reception at the dinner, RNS reporter Lauren Markoe noted there was more to the IDC conference: “In Defense of Christians’ three-day inaugural summit ended on Thursday and brought together hundreds of Orthodox Christians from the Middle East and Europe, as well as many American Orthodox Christians, Catholics and evangelicals. On Wednesday morning the conference heard from Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., as well as several Orthodox patriarchs before heading to Capitol Hill for a day of lobbying. Only one Wednesday morning speaker mentioned Israel, calling its conflict with the Palestinians the root of Middle Eastern chaos.”
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