When Texas Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz left the stage amid a chorus of boos during a recent conference, it dramatically demonstrated a religious and political divide between many Christians in the U.S. and many Christians in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, Cruz briefly spoke at the inaugural summit of the new group In Defense of Christians (IDC).
The IDC was recently formed to draw attention to the plight of historic Christian communities being persecuted in the Middle East.
“This solidarity will strengthen advocacy efforts with policy makers and elected officials and make more palatable grass-roots outreach to the American public,” the IDC explained. “Thus united, Middle Eastern Christians will invite all people of good will to join the cause to defend the defenseless, to be a voice for those who are voiceless.”
Speakers at the star-studded summit included numerous political leaders from both parties, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and several members of Congress.
A variety of Christian leaders from Anglican, Armenian, Catholic, Coptic, Maronite, Oriental and Orthodox churches also spoke.
By all accounts, the gathering demonstrated unity across denominational and nationalistic boundaries – until Cruz spoke.
“Christians have no greater ally than Israel,” Cruz told the crowd, many of whom were Arab Christians from the Middle East.
His remark quickly prompted boos and shouts of opposition. Rather than consider what Middle Eastern Christians believed about life in the Middle East, Cruz instead attacked the crowd.
Cruz implied the crowd was anti-Semitic even though they had previously applauded his claim that Jews must also be protected.
“Those who hate Israel hate America,” he said amid more boos and shouts. “Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps.”
IDC President Toufic Baaklini came onto the stage to urge the crowd to let Cruz speak. However, Cruz decided to leave.
“If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you,” Cruz said. “Good night, and God bless.”
Cruz, who is considering a 2016 presidential run, walked off stage to more boos mixed with a sprinkle of applause.
Maronite Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of Brooklyn, New York, was at the gathering.
He noted he likes Cruz but criticized the politician for maintaining “a litmus test” that the group had to support Israel.
“Well, that’s not an approach that is viable for a Christian,” Mansour said. “Christians don’t ally themselves to any state. … We are not allied to the state – to the United States or to Iraq, or to Syria. Christians must be free to engage their society, to build up what is beautiful in it, and to critique what is not.”
Orthodox pastor Andrew Stephen Damick, whose wife is a Palestinian Christian, also criticized Cruz and other U.S. Christians for ignoring the voices of Middle Eastern Christians.
“When Cruz announced that he would not stand with them because they did not stand with Israel, he essentially consigned these people and their families and flocks to slaughter because they did not share his politics on the most controversial state in their region,” he argued. “American Christians’ inability to see Middle Eastern Christians for who they are – not just fellow Christians, but human beings who are suffering and dying – contributes to the marginalization of some of the most persecuted people in the world, hastening their erasure from history.”
Conservative pundit Rod Dreher, who worships in a Maronite church, criticized his fellow conservatives for defending Cruz.
Dreher noted that Brietbart, a conservative website, used scare quotes in a headline about the crowd: “After booing Ted Cruz for Supporting Israel, ‘Christian’ Leaders Meet with and Praise Obama.” Dreher condemned the headline as “a disgusting smear.”
Dreher also criticized Cruz’s treatment of the Christians at the conference, saying Cruz “tried to trash and exploit them for American political purposes.”
“I still could not get over the audacity and the cruelty of the act, and the shamelessness of his using the most persecuted and threatened Christians in the world to boost his own political prospects or to cover his flank with his domestic audience,” Dreher later added.
Although Cruz’s comments brought boos from Middle Eastern Christians, it might actually help him win over U.S. Christians and other U.S. voters should he seek higher office.
The Pew Research Center released survey results in July showing that 70 percent of white evangelicals in the U.S. said they sympathized more with Israelis while only 5 percent said they sympathized more with Palestinians.
While non-evangelical Republicans backed Israel by a 66-8 margin, white evangelical Republicans did so by a 78-4 margin.
White evangelicals favor the Israeli side more strongly than other religious groups in the U.S. and most Americans still sympathize more with Israelis.
Overall, 51 percent of Americans said they sympathized more with Israelis while only 14 percent said they sympathized more with Palestinians.
White mainline Protestants backed Israel by a 55-11 margin, Catholics backed Israel by a 46-14 margin, and black Protestants backed Israel by a 44-17 margin.
While Cruz’s remarks drew boos from some in attendance, it brought applause from many of his constituents.
By quickly exiting the conference stage – instead of staying for dialogue – he better positioned himself for the national political stage.
Hoping to explain the stories and perspectives of Palestinian Christians, Bethlehem Bible College holds a biennial conference called “Christ at the Checkpoint.”
The fourth edition of the conference will occur in March 2016. As Cruz eyes his own 2016 plans, this month’s incident shows much more dialogue is needed between Christians in the U.S. and the Middle East.