As one of the 800 attendees at the In Defense of Christians (IDC) Gala Solidarity Dinner Program at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC on Wednesday, September 10, 2014, I was among those welcoming US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) as the keynote speaker. The program brought together a wide range of ancient Eastern Christian denominations from throughout the Middle East. The ostensible reason for the IDC Conference was to give notice of concern over the persecution of Christian minorities in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and to a lesser extent, Egypt. Among those in attendance were a few pro-Hezbollah Lebanese Christians affiliated with General Michel Aouns’ faction that is part of the March 8 coalition led by Hezbollah. Seated at a table across from us was a group of Syrian nationalists.
The previous evening saw a great deal of solidarity and unity among the sometimes rival eastern Christian denominations. But on Tuesday night, September 9, 2014, the Ecumenical Christian Prayer Service, which included prelates and representatives of all churches and rites, was a moving experience. The religious leaders were united in prayer for the safety of their threatened Christian brethren in Northern Iraq and Syria. The prelates were dressed in colorful robes and headwear. They included His Eminence Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation of the Oriental Churches; His Most Eminent Beatitude, Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Cardinal Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all of the East; Gregorios III Laham, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem, (the most vocal agitator against Senator Cruz); Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East; Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Great House of Ceilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church; Archbishop Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, DC; Joseph Zahlawi, Archbishop of New York and All of North America for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America; Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria (most eloquent speaker); and Ibrahim Ibrahim, Bishop Emeritus of the Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle. These religious leaders were most careful not to malign Islam or Muslims in their presentations. Their message was strictly religious. The keynote speaker, the Honorable John Ashcroft, former US Attorney General, was less discreet in naming the persecutors of Christians in the Middle East.
During the conference proceedings and in the literature produced by the IDC, there was no mention of Israel. Names used for Israel included Palestine and the Holy Land, but never explicitly Israel…until Senator Ted Cruz took to the podium. Almost from the get-go Cruz declared “Tonight we are united in defense of Jews.” There was wide applause for that. He then proceeded to say,
Tonight we are 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 (applause). Religious bigotry is a cancer with many manifestations. ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and state sponsors like Syria and Iran (a few boos from the nearby table occupied by Hezbollah supporters and Syrian nationalists) are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East.
Cruz ignored those booing and continued, “Sometimes we are told not to lump these groups together, but we have to understand their so-called nuances and differences. But we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on numerous rampages through the region. Hate is hate and murder is murder. Our purpose here tonight is to highlight a terrible injustice, a humanitarian crisis. Christians are being systematically exterminated.” Cruz then offered a comparison between the plight of Jews in the recent past and that of Christians today, “In 1948, Jews throughout the Middle East faced murder and extermination and fled to the nation of Israel. And today Christians have no better ally than the Jewish state.” Mayhem erupted in the room with the anti-Semites attempting to silence Cruz with boos, and stop him. Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch urged people to walk out.
Undeterred, Cruz continued to respond with: “Let me say this: those who hate Israel hate America, and those who hate Jews, hate Christians.” Boos enveloped the room, although many applauded and stood up in ovation for Cruz, including Joseph Hakim, President of the International Christian Union (ICU).
Cruz responded to those booing:
And if this room will not recognize that, then my 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.” Many in the ballroom applauded Cruz’s defiance of his detractors. “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 and murder Jews for their faith[.]
At this point the shouting from the floor drowned Cruz’s words, and the President of IDC Toufic Baaklini took the microphone and said to the audience, “Respect the speaker.”
Cruz, folding his papers, turned to the crowd and said, “I am saddened to see some here, not everyone, consumed with hate…,” and again responding to hecklers, he stated, “If you will not stand with Israel and Jews, then I will not stand with you.” Cruz then left the stage and walked out. As he made his way out, Ambassador Gilbert Chagouri, who organized and funded the IDC Inaugural Summit and the IDC president Toufic Baaklini, ran after Senator Cruz to offer their apologies.
Asked to respond to Senator Cruz’s speech, Joseph Hakim, ICU’s president had this to say:
In order for us (Middle East Christians) to break the taboo with regards to Israel and Jews, which means essentially silence on this subject, we must go forward and recognize the fact that Israel is a reality, and certainly not our enemy. Middle Eastern Christians who seek support from America must recognize the shared values between Israel and America, and between American Christians and Jews. Moreover, I am 100% in support of Senator Cruz’s remarks regarding ‘the enemies of Israel being the enemies of America.’ I believe that the enemies of Israel are also the enemies of Christians.
The words uttered by Senator Cruz were never addressed to, nor heard by Middle Eastern Christian audiences before, and I was never prouder as an American and as a Christian to hear his statements at the IDC Conference. I appreciate Senator Cruz’s support for Middle Eastern Christians persecuted in their homelands, and I am hopeful that Senator Cruz will continue to harbor a soft spot in his heart for our persecuted brethren in the Middle East.
Cruz, a devoted Christian, did not do what politicians do best -- pander to the crowd they are addressing. Instead, he admirably and courageously stood by his convictions, admonishing those with anti-Semitic sentiments who cannot bring themselves to recognize that Israel is on the front line in the war against the Islamic jihadists terror, whether it is ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah or Hamas, who seek to exterminate those who will not submit to their fanatical ideology.
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