The Real Problem With Ted Cruz’s Remarks To Persecuted Christians

John Rogove Adjunct Professor, NYU
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“If you will not stand with Israel…, then I will not stand with you.” This was what Sen. Ted Cruz had to say to one of the largest and most ecumenical groups of Middle East Christians assembled in centuries, before he stormed off the stage. In Defense of Christians, a charity founded recently to underscore the persecution and genocide the descendants of the world’s first Christians are currently staring down, had hosted him along with others to show their solidarity and offer help as ISIS crucifies and beheads its way across Syria and Iraq with Saudi funds and American weapons.

The genie is now out of the bottle, and the U.S. and its Gulf state allies no longer openly back the Sunni Islamist insurgency fighting the Syrian regime and its Hezbollah allies. Not unlike the Afghan Taliban of the 1980’s, yesterday’s “freedom fighters” are now an uncontrollable monster. Iraq’s Christians have gone, in ten years, from the privileged and prosperous position they occupied under Saddam to near total decimation. Until 2011, many hundreds of thousands of them had found safe haven in Syria, the only country in the region (with Lebanon) where Christians were as free as anyone to practice their faith and were not considered second class citizens (dhimmi).

But Ted Cruz obviously had other priorities: “ISIS, al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Hamas, state sponsors like Syria and Iran, are all engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign to destroy religious minorities in the Middle East.”

The fact that ISIS and al-Qaida, on the one hand, and the four others mentioned, on the other, are one another’s most irreducible enemies is in some small sense beside the point: Were they all in fact engaged in a “genocidal campaign” against religious minorities as Cruz claimed, their mutual enmity would not matter as far as the evening charity gala’s concern went. Nay, even the fact that the Shi’ites some of these groups represent are, with Christians and Yazidis, among those persecuted minorities Cruz feigns concern for, would not matter were these groups also persecuting Christians as claimed.

“Sometimes we are told not to loop these groups together, that we have to understand their so called nuances and differences. But we shouldn’t try to parse different manifestations of evil that are on a murderous rampage through the region,” Cruz went on. Manifestly, the fact that the first two groups are on a genocidal rampage, while the latter four are all part of a coalition that is fighting to stop that rampage and are in no meaningful sense involved in one of their own — least of all against Christians — matters little to Cruz. Plenty of things can be said about these groups, but that they — Hezbollah, Assad, and even Hamas — persecute Christians is certainly not one of them. Christians in these groups’ polities may or may not be partisans of them for the various political reasons for which one is for or against a party or government, but that they “persecute Christians” is simply not among these reasons. And to insinuate that they do so on a scale comparable to ISIS, al-Qaida, or Jabhat al-Nosra is grotesque and outrageous, and contributes objectively to that persecution.

Indeed, the reality the Senator came, surely for the first time, face to face with in this room full of the people it’s suddenly become good press to support is that the overwhelming majority of Syrian Christians support their government, just as roughly half of Lebanese Christians support the majority Christian party’s alliance with Hezbollah, and Palestinian Christians support nearly unanimously their 113-year-old nationalist struggle for statehood, of which they were the avant-garde. And Cruz laid his cards down on the table: he was not there to support them, but to support a movement most of them see as an oppressor, certainly not as vicious or malevolent as ISIS, but one which they’ve been struggling with for nearly a century — and which has certainly seen them as an enemy for as long.

Cruz has every right to support Israel, and this is obviously what he came to this event to do. But by giving a litany of Christian regional allies (or at least non-belligerent unfriendlies) and lumping them in with the most hostile forces both these groups and Christians have ever faced, he made it clear he could not be construed in any way as being there that night in defense of Middle Eastern Christians.

The Western geo-political position in years past made a certain hard-nosed cynical sense: Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, the PLO, Saddam’s Iraq are or were without contest hostile to Israel and, by extension and to varying degrees, Israel’s Western and regional allies. But this also meant, for better or for worse, that Israel and its American ally have found themselves in the belligerent camp, with precious few exceptions, vis-à-vis the region’s Christians. This is incontestable historical fact. Now these Christians and their allies are in the jaws of a genocidal wolf unleashed in part by the cynical realpolitik and eschatological tunnel-vision for which their Western brethren are partly responsible. And if these Western brethren feel it is more fitting to lecture them on whom they should feel persecuted by, they should not take it too hard when they are booed out of the room.