Bigotry behind the cassock
Tony Badran/Now Lebanon
What the IDC conference tells us about the anti-Sunni, pro-Assad messaging campaign being waged in Washington
Middle East Patriarchs meet with President Obama at the White House on 11 September (Image via Al-Hurra YouTube)
Last week, an indignant audience including prelates and leaders of the Eastern Christian churches, booed Senator Ted Cruz off the stage while he was speaking in Washington at the gala dinner for a conference held by the In Defense of Christians (IDC) organization. Ted Cruz, well-known for his fiercely uncompromising support for Israel as well as for religious freedom worldwide, told the assembled representatives of Middle Eastern Christians that they had no better friend than the Jewish state.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat stirred a significant debate on the subject when he criticized Cruz severely for his behavior. In Douthat’s opinion, the conference was “an ecumenical affair,” held by an “embattled religious minority” attempting “to organize to save itself from outright extinction.” Senator Cruz, according to Douthat, politicized what was an innocent moral endeavor aimed at raising awareness for and solidarity with the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.
Douthat’s view, however, reflects a widespread American naiveté about the sly ways of Middle East dictators, who have learned that paying lip service to Western values, for which, in truth, they have nothing but contempt, can prompt the US to let down its guard. As it turns out, the IDC conference was a thoroughly political enterprise – serving as a vehicle to solicit US backing for an anti-Sunni sectarian alignment led by Iran and prosecuted by its murderous lieutenant in Damascus. The Bashar al-Assad regime duped Douthat with surprising ease, and the success of the con should be studied by anybody interested in relations between the US and the Middle East.
In order to fully understand the purpose of the IDC affair, it needs to be placed in the context of the intense messaging operation that the Syrian regime and its allies are currently engaged in. The talking points of the campaign were outlined in a report in the pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar. The report came out after the incident with Sen. Cruz and after a clerical delegation met with President Barack Obama and presented him with a unified position paper.
The report, which Al-Akhbar says is based on information obtained from sources in the clerical delegation, highlights four main points from the meeting. First, it quotes a participant in the meeting claiming that Obama told the delegation: “we know that President Bashar Assad protects Christians.” This claim was repeated by pro-Assad Melkite Patriarch Gregory Lahham on a regime TV station, which suggests that he was the source behind Al-Akhbar’s report. (Lahham has previously been accused by a French Catholic bishop of playing the role of Assad representative at the Vatican.) Second, the US president, the report underscores, did not refer to the Syrian “regime” but rather to the Syrian “government,” implying legitimacy. Third, one member of the delegation – most likely Lahham – told Obama, “you should stop talking about a moderate Syrian opposition.” Fourth, after Obama explained that the purpose of striking the Islamic State (ISIS) was to “help continue the political process in Syria,” he allegedly added, “we made mistakes in Iraq that we will not repeat [in Syria],” in reference to the need for preserving “state institutions.”
Whether Obama did indeed make any of these points is up to the White House to deny or confirm. What is clear, however, is that the Al-Akhbar report reflects Assad’s messaging campaign, which the clerical delegation dutifully carried to Washington. Its substance, in brief, is that the US should partner with Assad as the legitimate government of Syria and protector of Christians. There are no “moderate” Sunni rebels, and the US should not partner with them. Rather, it should partner with legitimate “state institutions,” and not repeat the mistakes made in Iraq. Indeed, as another report in Al-Modon added, the delegation called on Obama to partner with “governments and regular armies.” Al-Akhbar noted that at this point, Obama highlighted US support to the Lebanese Armed Forces as “the best response against ISIS in Lebanon.”
These are the same talking points that the Assad regime and its Iranian and Lebanese allies have been feverishly reciting in recent days and weeks. Aside from interviews Syrian officials gave to US news outlets, the regime reportedly dispatched a letter to members of Congress, including John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. The letter emphasized the same line the Church leaders carried: there are no moderate rebels, and the US should cooperate with the state. Assad’s Lebanese ally, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil delivered the exact same message at the International Conference for Peace and Security in Iraq, which was held in Paris this past Monday. Bassil’s prepared remarks mirrored the talking points Al-Akhbar highlighted in its report. Bassil urged the international community to work with regular armies. He stressed that counterterrorism operations on the ground need to be done by legitimate governments and regular armed forces. He also highlighted the need for a simultaneous political process, and underscored the primacy of protecting minorities.
It is in this context that the IDC’s clerical delegation should be understood. It was but another facet of the regime’s information operation; an additional avenue to deliver, both to Obama and the US public (especially on the right), the very talking points that the Syrian regime and its allies have been systematically putting out: the US should partner with Assad, the “protector” of Christians.
The reported ties of some of the clerics and financiers of the conference to Assad and his allies did not bother in the least those who rose to its defense. But they didn’t even stop to consider the paradox inherent in the message they’re championing. For even as they warn against relegating Christians to dhimmi status – the status of a “protected” community under strict Islamic rule – the clerics seem to have no problem selling Washington on Assad’s “protection” of Christians. Put differently, this was not a message of universal rights and citizenship. Rather, it was a petition to Washington to underwrite an alliance with a specific political-sectarian camp – a camp, led by Iran, that is engaged in the slaughter and subjugation of Sunni citizens.
The problem, then, was not only the bigotry Lahham and other conference attendees displayed toward Jews at the gala dinner. Rather, it was the bigotry against Sunnis, all while hiding behind cassocks, crosses, and the rhetoric of tolerance.
What’s more, if there aren’t moderate Sunnis, as one of the Christian Patriarchs reportedly told Obama, then how are Middle Eastern Christians going to continue living in the region? If the proposition is an alliance with the Iran-Assad camp, under an American umbrella, then that entails a permanent state of war with the Sunnis, whose slaughter and forced subjugation are to be considered licit.
Despite the pretenses of the conference and the clergymen who promoted this message, and those who defended it, not all Middle Eastern Christians see it this way. Prominent Christian political figures and intellectuals in Lebanon criticized the IDC, and have rejected the call to align with Assad. They note that Christianity has survived for millennia and does not need to, and in no way should, cast its lot with murderous thugs, and deny Sunnis their rights to live free, in order to carry on.
Douthat lamented that “2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East” now risks ending “in blood and ash and exile,” blaming Ted Cruz and those on the right who criticized the conference. Christian history in the region survived countless hardships just fine. It doesn’t need the so-called protection of a two-bit crime family, let alone the terror-sponsoring Khomeinist state. If these leaders of the Eastern Churches have decided that peddling to Washington a sectarian alliance with a camp that has exiled and spilled the blood of hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims is the way to go, then it is they who are responsible for their political choices. Their message lacks both moral and strategic standing. Which means that those Americans who defended it were engaging in purely sectarian behavior – behavior distinctly at odds with American values and traditions.
**Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.