Washington D.C., Sep 11, 2014 / 03:03 am .- Despite strained political differences, Christian leaders at a historic ecumenical conference voiced the need for unity in the face of the mass persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
“For the love of God, we’re here to talk about the Christians and we’re here to be united,” said Andrew Doran, executive director of In Defense of Christians, at a Sept. 10 speech at the non-profit’s inaugural summit in Washington, D.C.
In Defense of Christians was founded to advocate for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East. The organization’s gala dinner on Wednesday was attended by over 1200 people including patriarchs and bishops of over a dozen Christian churches from countries throughout the Middle East.
“The last time a summit like this happened is probably in the fifteenth century,” Doran later told CNA.
Doran followed a controversial keynote address by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). The senator began the speech by saying that attendees were “united in defense of Christians” and “united in defense of Jews.” Cruz denounced what he called religious bigotry as a “cancer with many manifestations,” criticizing state and non-state actors such as Syria, Iran, ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Hamas.
Cruz told the crowd that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.” Cruz’s statement was met with negative outbursts from some in the audience. Other attendees tried to quiet those outbursts, while still others called for the senator to refocus his statements on the persecution of Christians.
Some Christians in the Middle East have criticized Israeli military policy, particularly for its impact on Palestinian Christian communities, such as the one in Bethlehem.
Cruz responded to the backlash by saying “those who hate Jews hate Christians,” adding that those who persecute Christians also “target Jews for their faith.” Cruz did not mention the persecution of numerous minority Muslim communities across the region.
“If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” Cruz said before he left the stage, “then I will not stand with you.”
After Cruz left the stage, Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, implored the attendees of the conference to remember its purpose “to truly have a witness today with unity and the solidarity that we came here to be part of.”
“The Middle East has been a cradle of culture and civilization for more than 2,000 years,” the cardinal said, adding that over the millennia Christians there have built “a culture of tolerance and unconditional acceptance for the other as other.”
Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan, Syriac Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, pointed out the dire situation for many in the region and said that Christians in the Middle East “are on the verge of genocide.”
He decried “all acts of violence against humans,” calling instead for peace.
Metropolitan Joseph Zahlawi, Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, echoed Younan’s comments, saying that the differences between people are “part of the gift from God.”