The following column first appeared on the Patheos website. It was written by Michael J.L. La Civita, who joined Catholic Near East Welfare Association in 1989 and is the papal agency’s communications director. He also is a knight commander of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.
The dust has yet to settle from the Ted Cruz debacle at the “summit” of the nascent political action group, In Defense of Christians (IDC). Stones have been hurled from all sides — often with no clear target other than self-defense. “Lord have mercy,” said one clergyman who attended the summit, “everyone seems to use (this) sad event to support their own preconceived conclusions.”
In Sunday’s The New York Times, it was columnist Ross Douthat’s turn. He claims the senator’s performance demonstrates that the “American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share in the fate” of the Middle East’s “increasingly beleaguered Christian communities” that “have suffered from a fatal invisibility in the Western world.” Their plight “has been particularly invisible in the United States, which as a majority-Christian superpower might have been expected to provide particular support.”
The columnist considers three reasons for this supposed invisibility: the political left; the strategic class; and the right, especially its conservative Christians, whom he identifies as American Catholics and evangelicals.
Long before political strategists forged an alliance among so-called Christian “value voters” — when Catholics were just Catholics, not pawns divided by political lobbyists and strategists to engage in the culture wars — American Catholics provided significant support to their Christian sisters and brothers in the Middle East. Whether as donors to Catholic charities such as the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), founded in 1926, or as members of chivalric orders such as the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem or the Order of Malta, American Catholics helped to build and sustain the many social service institutions of the churches in the Middle East. These church-run colleges and clinics, schools and child care programs, nursing homes and special needs facilities, halfway houses and substance abuse programs have served not just Christians, but generations of Alawis, Druze, Jews and Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
“Not only have American Catholics helped to build these social service institutions,” said CNEWA’s president, Msgr. John E. Kozar, “they have helped sustain the infrastructures of the churches that remain beacons of peace and stability in the Middle East.”
The generosity and concern of American Catholics for the other is not rooted in or sustained by a political cause or political ideology. Rather, it has been their Christian faith, which compels them to love their neighbor as themselves. And while that American Catholic generosity is exceptional, it is not isolated. Organizations in Europe and Canada have, since the middle of the 19th century, provided financial resources as well as priests, sisters and brothers at the service of all people in the Middle East.
Despite the enormous challenges affecting the churches of the West — many self-imposed — Catholics of the West have not lost sight of their sisters and brothers in the Middle East, nor have they abandoned the needs of the region’s non-Christians. They have rushed emergency aid to displaced families fleeing the civil war in Syria, the violent implosion of Iraq and the violence in Gaza even as they continue to support the formation of priests and religious sisters and brothers in Egypt, Iraqi Kurdistan and Lebanon.
Now, however, fresh from the political and legal battles waged over issues of religious liberty in the United States, the American “strategic class” has stepped in with its clients — elected politicians. Suddenly, claiming indifference on the part of the West, these Beltway policy wonks, lobbyists and talking heads have rushed to save the Middle East’s Christians from genocidal persecution at the hands of suicidal Muslim extremists. Employing the language framing U.S.-style religious liberty battles to describe the plight of Middle East Christians, they risk politicizing an issue that concerns all people of good will, thus excluding the vast majority of Americans weary of the divisive and bitter partisan battles marking American culture today.
There is real potential for In Defense of Christians to advocate for the rights of all persecuted Christians in the Middle East. However, this lobby cannot defend only select Middle East Christians; nor can it afford to invite speakers with nebulous agendas.
Pointing out the persecution of a few proselytizing evangelical Christians in Iran while neglecting the real persecution of Christians in Saudi Arabia, discounting the tremendous needs of thousands of abused Christian migrants from Kerala and the Philippines working in the Persian Gulf, and dismissing the serious, but inconvenient, human rights concerns impacting Palestinian and Israeli Arab Christians suggests a partisan lobby with an agenda more aligned with promoting a particular U.S. foreign policy than the authentic defense of Christians and other minorities.
“Organizers must overcome the temptation to join a religious and human rights cause with a particular wing of American politics,” said the one-time Middle East adviser to the U.S. Catholic bishops, Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen. “Please, do not use us (Middle East Christians) for political votes,” pleaded Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church just hours before Cruz’s aborted address at the IDC summit.
“Advocate, please, but (advocate) because you care.”
Cruz’s comments — you “have no greater ally than the Jewish state” — to a room packed with Christian citizens of states that maintain uneasy truces with Israel either demonstrate he does not understand the realities of the Middle East or that he chose to exploit them to energize his political base as he contemplates a run for president in 2016. Either way, the comments have now set off a firestorm, threatening to marginalize Middle East’s Christians in the United States even as they confront existential realities in their homelands.
For three days, the heads of the Eastern churches in the Middle East, or their representatives, gathered in the nation’s capital with members of their faith communities from the Americas and beyond. This was an unprecedented event. Yet, the prayerful unity marking the occasion was shattered by overt partisan politics that is suffocating our nation today. The complexities of the region, shrouded by the summit’s organizers, were exposed in minutes.
For decades, partisan politics and competing ideologies had no place among American Catholics dedicated to supporting their sisters and brothers in the Middle East. U.S. partisan politics have no place today, especially as the lives of innocent men, women and children are threatened by the evils of the extremist partisan ideologies of the Middle East.
Polemics divide. And, in our hyper-partisan climate of today, they demonize the other, defeating the fruits of dialogue, justice and peace, even as we combat the forces of fear and ignorance that bring about extremism and its violent consequences. Let us remember, the shepherds and their sheep who traveled to Washington last week arrived exhausted and in search of peace, justice and true friendship. They deserved no less.
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