Posted by on September 16, 2014 in Blog
By now, anyone who has heard of the “In Defense of Christians” (IDC) summit that took place in Washington, DC last week undoubtedly knows of the infamous incident involving Senator Ted Cruz. Type “In Defense of Christians” into Google, and almost every search result will mention the senator.
It is unfortunate that the only headlines out of the summit were Senator Cruz’s remarks and the audience’s reaction, as well as a few hit-pieces on the religious leaders in attendance. After Cruz got booed off stage, IDC’s Executive Director Andrew Doran exclaimed to the audience: “For the love of God, people, can we remember why we’re here?”
In an effort to highlight and “remind” people about why these leaders from across the country and the world gathered in DC last week, here are six notable things you might have missed from the IDC summit as Senator Cruz stole the spotlight.
- The biggest news was probably that for the first time ever in the United States, six patriarchs representing different branches of Middle East Christianity gathered together for this summit. This in itself was a seminal achievement. The Christian leaders met with President Obama on September 12, and the president spent over half-an-hour discussing the importance of defending Christian communities and minorities in the region. Notably, the President explicitly detailed his concerns about Lebanon. Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai noted that Obama promised to “protect Lebanon from the repercussions of everything that is happening in the region,” and said they discussed Lebanon’s presidential vacuum and increasing support for the Lebanese army. As the threat from ISIS plagues Iraq and Syria, Lebanon continues to teeter on the brink as it faces the impact of the Syrian crisis, the refugee spillover, and Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.
- Following the summit, AAI’s Jim Zogby offered his two cents on Senator Cruz’s antics, but Zogby also discussed advocacy work in the United States and the region during a panel discussion. Zogby revealed a story of how one U.S. political figure once asked him, upon hearing he was Christian, “when did your family convert?” The incident highlighted the need for advocating on behalf of Middle East Christians and educating Americans about the history of these communities in the Middle East. Zogby noted that advocacy should not only be centered on Middle East Christians, but that all vulnerable communities in the region needed to be defended against extremism and violence. Zogby argued that the defense of Christians must be “holistic and comprehensive” so that all people in the region, regardless of religion, can live in inclusive and representative societies.
- Nermien Riad, founder and executive director of Egypt’s Coptic Orphans, emphasized the importance of advocacy efforts in the region during a panel discussion, highlighting the difficult work organizations are doing on the ground. Her speech stressed three areas – education, health, and charity – and noted how the Christian community in the region was conducting vital operations in all of these areas through schools, hospitals, and NGOs. Riad discussed the need to continue and bolster these efforts, which serve all people in the region, not just Christians. Several organizations operating in the region were featured throughout the summit and had displays about their work.
- Around 30 members of Congress participated in the summit in different capacities, and numerous Congressional leaders besides Senator Cruz addressed participants and were more considerate to their audience. These included five Democrats and twelve Republicans. One of the notable speeches came from Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif), whose mother was Armenian and father Assyrian. Eshoo argued that the United States has shown a great “willingness” to protect religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, but that more could be done, including appointing a special envoy at the State Department to oversee the cause of religious liberty in the Middle East under legislation already passed and signed by the president.
- While all of the patriarchs gave impassioned remarks, one of the highlights came from Aram I Keshishian, the Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church since 1995, based in Antelias, Lebanon. Catholicos Aram I discussed the importance of instilling democracy in the region, saying “democracy is needed in the region to protect Christians and it must emanate from within,” citing democratic institutions and values as the “bulwark of extremism.” He was critical of the United States’ and international community’s approaches in the region thus far, saying “Christians are not seeking humanitarian aid anymore. They are seeking humanitarian action.” In his speech, he noted that the United States should look to prioritizing human rights over interests when weighing action to protect Christians, which he called indispensable to the region. He stated that any “forward-looking mission” goes beyond military action and requires “plurality, equality, and liberty” to ensure that Christians do not live on the “periphery” and so that all monotheistic religions can cohabitate and collaborate.
- Rateb Rabie, a Palestinian Christian and President of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, opened his remarks by saying, “I am not a scholar, a priest, or a politician. I am just a Palestinian Christian with a mission.” With these introductory words, Rabie, the only representative of the Palestinian Christians at the summit, went on to shed light on his small but important community in the region. Rabie mentioned the difficulties he’s faced bringing attention to Middle East Christians to the American Christian community. He said this difficulty still remains, even within his community - “I felt alone here today,” he said. “I wish that our Palestinian Christian religious leaders of Jerusalem had been invited to be here and that they will not be excluded in the future. They have much wisdom to impart and have represented the oppressed Palestinian Christians for over 65 years. They could show everyone in this room and the world how they taught us Palestinian Christians coexistence: how to live as one people with our Palestinian Muslim brothers and sisters, and to live in peace with the Jewish people in Israel. Palestinian Christians are a natural bridge for peace.”