The Corner

In Defense of Christians

Andrew Doran is executive director of In Defense of Christians (IDC), an organization that made news headlines last week when Texas senator Ted Cruz’s keynote speech at a conference held by the group took some unexpected turns. Doran, a former State Department official, talks with National Review Online about the Cruz incident but more so about the meeting of Arab Christians last week in Washington, D.C., why it was important, what came of it, and what might be to come.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: We have to start with the elephant in the room: What happened with Ted Cruz the other night?  

Andrew Doran: It’s unfortunate that Senator Cruz was booed. But what’s more unfortunate is that he chose to make a summit of and for Middle Eastern Christians about something other than a summit about Middle Eastern Christians. The summit to that point, from the National Press Club to Capitol Hill, had been replete with positive references to “our Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters.” When Mr. Cruz mentioned solidarity with Jews at the beginning of the speech, he was applauded. (This was omitted from the video footage circulating but may be found here.) But what is more unfortunate is that he chose to politicize a highly complicated and volatile subject while Christians are being systematically eradicated. The sense of nearly every person in the room, no matter what their background or affiliation, was that it was designed to bait the audience; sadly, some attendees took the bait. Many of those present had come out of the Middle East at great personal risk to their flocks and families. Any statesman (or decent human being) would’ve appreciated this. A true statesman would meet with religious leaders and hear what they had to say. As Bishop Angaelos said on Fox News after the summit, Cruz seemed to lack empathy for those in the room whose loved ones suffer persecution. 

Over the last several years, I’ve had many conversations with Christians from the Middle East about Israel and their views land anywhere on a broad spectrum of opinion. Some are sympathetic but can’t say so because to do so would put their lives at risk; it should be sufficient to say that minorities tend to be sympathetic to other minorities. Others remember being forced to leave their villages in Palestine never to return. And still others are proud citizens of Israel. So there must be more options for Middle Eastern Christians than outspoken support for Israel and anti-Semitism. The Middle East is complicated and nuanced, whether politicians want it that way or not. That’s why serious statesmen are measured in their remarks: When they’re not, it puts lives at risk. 

 

Lopez: What had been your goal for the night?

Doran: Cruz’s talk was supposed to have been, “Religious Freedom and Human Dignity: Religious Persecution of Christians, Unity with the Persecuted Church.” Obviously, he went off script. Our goal for the summit was to achieve a sense of unity among the many hundreds of Middle Eastern Christians who attended. In an unexpected way, Cruz helped the summit to achieve this, but it would’ve been better had he not spoken — especially for those who had to return to the Middle East. Still, the outpouring from our Middle Eastern Christian brothers and sisters has been overwhelmingly positive. The summit was historic and a huge success from start to finish. 

 

Lopez: How were you hoping Cruz would factor into that?

Doran: We were hoping that he would discuss the plight of Christians and how America ought to stand with them. Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church had, I think, the best response: 

Having spoken at this IDC Summit on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and particularly in Iraq and Syria, I take personal exception to sweeping statements made about those in attendance as exercising “bigotry and hatred…against Jews and Israel”. In light of the current very real challenges, this is not a time for such divisive and inflammatory language that demonizes communities and causes rifts between them when their collaboration is most needed.

 

Lopez: Do you regret inviting him?

Doran: Yes. I think everyone present was horrified because they know how much is at stake. The outpouring of support has been very encouraging. But it brought people in the room together and that’s important. 

His staff reached out to me earlier this year when I was in Syria (where I wrote for NRO, as it happens, while with Christians and Kurds who were fighting both the Islamic State and the Assad regime), Iraq, and Lebanon. I met with Cruz and his staff when I got back and they seemed to sincerely care about the plight of Christians. We’re disappointed, but that won’t deter us in our work. There are still millions of Americans who have no idea that there are Christians in the Middle East. My hope is that this will inspire many Americans to learn more about Christianity in the Middle East and the Middle East generally.

 

Lopez: Who was doing the booing?

Doran: There were several Syrians present who were outraged when Syria’s regime was lumped in with the Islamic State by Cruz; others are Palestinian Christians; some were insulted that he was politicizing the summit and lecturing them. (Most of them know a little more about the Middle East than the junior senator from Texas.) It was rude, to be sure, but we might remember that many of those present have to return to the Middle East — and many people there were watching these events closely. This has weighed heavily on us since the speech. I was backstage and so it was difficult to see, though I did hear people shout, “Talk about the Christians.” It wasn’t the only comment, to be sure, but that comment by itself certainly cannot be reasonably characterized as anti-Israel. To interrupt a speech is of course unacceptable, but the sentiment wasn’t unreasonable. One journalist told me that a table began booing loudly and that it looked staged to him. I don’t know about that but it wouldn’t surprise me, frankly. Many people wanted to see this event fail. It didn’t. Hundreds of Middle Eastern Christians are returning home and forming local chapters. This summit surpassed our wildest expectations. 

 

Lopez: As much as you might feel wronged by Cruz, that booing wasn’t Christian behavior, was it?

Doran: It wasn’t at all Christian. It also wasn’t tolerated. I’m sorry to say that several people were asked to leave the summit for their behavior. 

 

Lopez: Part of the reason Cruz may have done what he did is news reports about terror ties people — including the president of the group — have. This is a problem, isn’t it?

Doran: I’m not sure who you’re referring to, but that allegation is not only false but has been acknowledged as false by the original source, a discredited Syrian ex-pat a couple of weeks ago (Farid Ghadry) on his website. He subsequently removed it and issued a retraction and apology. This hasn’t stopped the claim — which, incidentally, is defamatory and will be dealt with legally — from spreading. Anyone who continues to knowingly spread false reports should understand the consequences of doing so. Suffice it to say, no benefactor or person affiliated in any way with the organization has ties to Hezbollah. 

Ambassador Gilbert Chagoury, one of the main benefactors of the event, is a Lebanese-Nigerian businessman, Vatican diplomat, and philanthropist, who has done industrial development work in Africa and the Middle East for decades. Because of his close ties to the Vatican, including Cardinal Sandri, he was able to get the support of many key religious leaders. The cause of the Christians is very close to his heart and he wants to see America lead on this issue. The president of IDC, Toufic Baaklini, has been working to protect Christians and human rights in the Middle East for thirty years. Toufic and Cardinal Wuerl discussed the idea of a summit over dinner in Washington last year.

With respect to Lebanon, it’s always an easy smear to say that Christians there have ties to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is part of the political reality of the country; it doesn’t mean that every Christian involved in politics is somehow sympathetic to terrorist organizations. It would be like accusing every Catholic in Northern Ireland of being affiliated with Sinn Fein or the IRA. Even those Lebanese Christians affiliated with the party of former prime minister Michel Aoun are not thrilled by the political realities in their country. Lebanon’s Christians joined others to peacefully end the occupation of Syria’s regime in Lebanon and preserve Christianity nearly a decade ago. Lebanon’s Christians are in a very difficult situation; lumping them all together as accommodating terrorist organizations is simply unreasonable and frankly offensive.

 

Lopez: What do you wish people could know about the summit?

Doran: The summit was historic and a great success. This work is only beginning. From the ecumenical prayer service to the events on Capitol Hill to the final day of panel discussions, it was a tremendous success. This was the sense of those who came. Some were skeptical that this could be pulled off. By the end, many were in tears.

 

Lopez: Why was getting the religious leaders you had there together in Washington significant?

Doran: The last time Eastern Christianity’s religious leaders and political leaders from the West gathered for a similar purpose was probably the 15th century. That the patriarchs were able to meet with President Obama is significant. We had upwards of 30 members of Congress from both sides of the aisle participate in some capacity in the summit. The religious leaders were also able to provide up-to-the-minute insights on the deteriorating situation. And they were there speaking with one voice, not only for one nationality or denomination. That’s hugely significant. There will be even more religious leaders next year. In the meantime, we’ll begin putting into place substantive and specific solutions for the crisis, beginning with humanitarian relief and promoting political stability.

 

Lopez: Patriarch Rai said Thursday night at the closing Mass of the summit that President Obama seemed receptive to hearing their reports about the region. What can become of that?

Doran: As Bishop Angaelos noted, it is always better to hear directly from the leaders on the ground rather than from advisers. We hope for more such meetings with other Western leaders in the future.

 

Lopez: There was a lot of talk during the summit of being a leaven and reconciliation. But you can’t negotiate with extremists. Is there a danger of naïveté and a danger of dancing with the devil? How is that navigated on the ground?

Doran: It’s important for us to avoid the politics on the ground and focus on the Christians, the work they do, and why they’re vital to the region. They’re also vital to America’s national security, whether we want to believe that or not. Now, some of the people attacking this summit have a pretty clear agenda and it does not include the Christians. Setting aside the moral dimension of abandoning more than 10 million people to death or exile, this is a stupid policy for America. Those places where Muslims have close proximity to Christians do not breed terrorists. 

 

Lopez: How can Americans wanting to help the situation discern which charitable groups are deserving of support?

Doran: There are many wonderful organizations doing charitable work in the region, such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and I would say to avoid the politics altogether wherever possible — there and here.

 

Lopez: One speaker yesterday begged the U.S. to stop being so reactive and to also realize regime change isn’t always the answer. Is there a recommendation to the White House that IDC offers here?

Doran: It seems pretty clear to me that U.S. policy has had an inimical effect on the Christian communities of the Middle East, whether it’s invading Iraq, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or not acting swiftly enough as the Islamic State gained momentum. Whatever we do seems to be the wrong move.

 

Lopez: What was your most pleasant surprise of the summit?

Doran: I expected much more internecine squabbling and there was really very little of that. Copts, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Maronites, Syriac Christians, and Christians from the West are now more united than they were and are keen on working together to make their plight known.

 

Lopez: Was there a real practical takeaway?

Doran: There were several. Diaspora Christians are eager to organize locally and we’re helping them to do this. The significance of a unified approach with respect to advocacy and awareness can’t be overstated. We also saw that second- and third-generation Middle Eastern Christians are getting involved. This is very important, since they’ve fully assimilated culturally and can speak the language of their American peers. All of this will only snowball. As an organization, we’re having difficulty keeping up with all of the requests to volunteer locally and to support this work.

 

Lopez: What was the most important speech?

Doran: You know, I was working for nearly the entire duration of the summit and only had the chance to hearparts of a few. I look forward to watching them when I get a free moment. For me, the most important speech came from Mother Olga and it was backstage, from her to me only, after my remarks following the Cruz walk off. She saw that I was perturbed and she came up and hugged me, which nearly threw my back out because she’s a very little person. She said, “These are the arms of Jesus embracing you. He wants you to know that he is very pleased with what you’ve done.” Anyone who knows me knows I’m not particularly devout — more of an act-like-it-depends-on-you than a pray-like-it-depends-on-God type — but these words were and are a source of tremendous comfort.   

 

Lopez: It was an inaugural summit. What’s to come?  

Doran: Organizing local chapters, which will reach out to elected officials, work with aid organizations, promote awareness locally, and see the diasporas of disparate communities work together locally and nationally. There will be other conferences and summits.

 

Lopez: How did you get involved in this work?

Doran: I’d traveled to the Middle East fairly extensively for work, but a few years ago I heard a speech challenging Americans to do something to help their brother and sister Christians. It was an issue with which I was reasonably familiar but felt called to do more. So I just began doing the work. I went, I interviewed, and I wrote. Last year I went to Egypt with a filmmaker, Jordan Allott. We paid ourselves but were only able to do this through the generous donations of a few friends. Later last year, I met some Middle Eastern Christians who’d had a meeting with Cardinal Wuerl to discuss a summit of the patriarchs and political leaders in Washington, D.C. The liked the model of advocacy and awareness; I thought the idea of a summit was excellent. We’ve been working together since and our support among other Christians from the Middle East has grown since.

 

Lopez: Why are you doing this work?

Doran: A variety of complicated reasons, I suppose, which can be reduced to feeling called to do so. The Christians of the Middle East are beautiful people. Even before the summit, we would get calls from people and would be humbled by their kind words and offers to help. I would tell our team, “Remember that person. It will sustain you in difficult moments.” And it has. If the only Christians in the Middle East were the Sisters of Maadi, or the Good Shepherd Sisters, or the Syrian pastor whom we met in Syria, or those I met who were holding out against the Islamic State with insufficient arms, all of this would be worth it. It’s certainly not for the money. I’ve never taken a cent.

 

Lopez: Cardinal Wuerl talked about Western Christian solidarity with the persecuted. What does that actually look like? How does it impact the situation?

Doran: Cardinal Wuerl was instrumental in bringing the gathering about and the Christians of the Middle East are immensely grateful to him. It is easy to underestimate the importance of religious leaders from the Middle East meeting with each other in public prayer and meeting with political leaders because we see it all the time. It is hugely significant. Probably not since the Council of Florence has an event like this taken place with religious leaders from the East and political leaders in the West.

Lopez: What can an American concerned about Christians in Iraq practically do to help?

Doran: First, they can encourage their church leaders to voice the same concern publicly. Second, they can contact their elected representatives in Washington and tell them that they fully support the Christians of the Middle East and whatever legislation will advance that end. They can adopt parishes and churches in the Middle East and in so doing become aware of their material needs. They can do fundraisers for groups like the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA). Some can visit the Middle East as I did, to encounter not only Christians but also the Muslims with whom they live, side by side. These Muslims are also threatened by extremism. It’s important for us to stand with them as well.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally made reference to an erroneous report that Senator Cruz had based a fundraising pitch on his IDC speech; the reference has been removed.

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