Reflections on the In Defense of Christians Summit

September 12, 2014

Stopping the murder, genocide, beheadings, crucifixions and persecution of Christians at the hands of ISIS and extremists throughout the Middle East is what the inaugural "In Defense of Christians Summit" should have been all about. The conference held earlier this week in Washington, D.C., gathered Christians from many traditions who share a common goal of standing with and defending those who claim the Name of Jesus in war-torn Islamic regions.

However, the devil hates the Church and will do anything to divide Christians against each other. And divide them he did. While most were concerned with forging unity among all men of good will to stop Islamic extremism, a few embarrassing missteps prevented the summit from becoming the seminal rally cry in defense of persecuted Christians in the Middle East. There are reports that one of the conference's financiers, Gilbert Chagoury, profited off of corrupt business contracts in Nigeria. Some were concerned that the conference did not take a strong enough stance against Syria's dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iran. The summit has also garnered some bad press. Some of the scheduled speakers have been controversially linked to Hezbollah and Assad and others have spoken very critically of Israel.

Most notably, however, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was slated as a keynote speaker for the event, was booed off stage after issuing his support for Israel in his address. It is sad that for a conference focused on toleration and acceptance for "all human beings and their fundamental human rights" would capitulate to hostile sentiments with regard to Israel.

There is more to the incident than meets the eye. Many of the conferences attendees were Lebanese and Palestinian Christians who have been caught in the crosshairs of their respective governments and the nation of Israel. While Israel allows for religious freedom, some traditionally-minded Israelis have little taste for Christianity. There is also the ever present influence of nationalism which colors so many people's faith, not only in the Middle East but around the world. In this instance, Lebanon and Palestine view Israel as unjustly possessing parts of their respective national territories.

None of this excuses the poor treatment the Senator received from some of the summit's attendees. After all, Sen. Cruz has been one of the most active proponents in Congress of the defense of Christian communities in the Middle East. Bishop Yousif Habash, Bishop of Our Lady of Deliverance of Newark (which serves Syriac Catholics throughout the United States and Canada) did not speak at the summit but said that the response to Sen. Cruz demonstrated "a lack of patience from our people ... If he came [again] and said the same things, he'd be accepted," Bishop Yousif remarked.

Regardless of the disappointing controversies, the central message of the summit addressed the defense of the fundamental right of Christians to practice their faith without any oppression or brutality from violent Islamic extremism. Speakers agreed about the need for a consolidated and uniquely Christian response to the crisis, one that should be focused not on retribution or animosity but rather a pursuit of love and justice. His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch spoke of the need to focus on a Christ centered approach rather than a strategy of war. As he observed, "War has not succeeded in the Middle East...we have to look to the mystery of the Resurrection."

The gravity of the issue demands prompt action as His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church reminds us: "if we fail to take collective and swift action... the Middle East will be transformed into... radicalism... Christianity is on the verge of disappearing in the Middle East." While war alone is not the answer to the crisis Christians face, solutions must also be crafted politically. "Our strategy must be political, economic, diplomatic and military actions... Christians don't [only] want humanitarian aid but want humanitarian action [also]" Keshishian remarked.

Eric Metaxas, renowned author and scholar and 2014 commencement speaker for Hillsdale College and Baccalaureate speaker for Liberty University, discussed the need to speak out against persecution in the face of adversity. Quoting Bonhoeffer Metaxas said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil." Metaxas continued, "Our allegiance must first be to Jesus...if your allegiance is first to the state you are not a Christian."

Dr. Philip Salem, Director of the Cancer Research Program at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas spoke of the need to change the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East in order to root out extremist ideology. "We need to liberate the minds of the people by education," he said. Salem also spoke to the problem that many Middle Eastern states have in resorting to either oppressive dictatorships or Islamic extremism. "Either dictator or radical Islam, we reject both," Salem said to the applause of the summit attendees. Other speakers focused on the need to form democratic states that respect religious liberty and called for moderate Muslims to publicly denounce Islamic extremism and work with Christians in securing their rights.

Nina Shea, Director for the Center of Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, advocated for the need for the President and Congress to appoint a special liaison to the Middle East in defense of religious liberty. "It is not sectarian for the United States to stand up for persecuted Christians," she said. According to Bishop Yousif, central message of this year's summit was essentially a message "to give hope for Christians of the homeland." Father Khalil Alwan, Superior General of the Lebanese Missionaries who attended but did not speak at the summit, said that the message was primarily about "the dignity and respect of the human person."

As Christians we must be very careful not to elevate our party identities or nationalistic sensibilities to a point of precedence over our loyalty to the Gospel. We must forgive each other of our wrongs and find a way to forge forward in unity, in truth and in justice. The very existence of the Church in the Middle East is at stake. We must work with all men of good will.

With that said, it is equally important that Christian communities in the Middle East must distance themselves not only from ISIS but from all terrorist organizations and oppressive regimes including Hezbollah, Assad, and Iran. Christians must rely on Christ for their needs, not on the state. "Put no trust in princes...happy are those whose help is Jacob's God, whose hope is in the Lord" (Psalm 146:3, 5). In turn we in the West must provide support to the Christians who desire to remain in their homelands as a testament to Christ. The Middle East needs Christians and they in turn need us.