Contrary to conventional wisdom, supporting both Israel and Christians in the Middle East simultaneously are not mutually exclusive despite the recent moves of certain religious and political leaders, scholars say.
Such was the perspective expressed by Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute and Robert Nicholson of the Philos Project on Tuesday at an event sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy at the Army Navy Club.
Tadros, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, noted in his remarks that some of the historic conflict between Christians and Jews in the Middle East is because over the centuries they lived as “dhimmis” in the region; they were second-class citizens under Islamic rule in which their social and economic options were considerably limited.
“So there was a natural tension between Christian communities and Jewish communities that had to fight over these opportunities,” Tadros said.
He explained that what Western Christians have termed “replacement theology”— the notion that the Jews are no longer God’s chosen people and Christians have replaced them — is a view that has and still resonates with many Christians in the region. A famous example of this was when the Coptic Pope met with President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Carter commented on the Jews being God’s chosen people, to which the Coptic pope replied: “Well, if they are, who are we?”
Two political news stories have helped create the impression that support for Christians in the Middle East and backing Israel are at fundamentally at odds, Tadros added.
One of those events was when Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas got booed by an audience of mostly Middle Eastern Christians when he mentioned in a 2014 speech that support for Israel is in keeping with supporting Middle East Christians at a gala banquet hosted by the group In Defense of Christians. Upon being jeered, Cruz cut his speech short, accused the crowd of anti-Semitism, and said, “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you,” and abruptly walked off stage.
The other event happened in early December, days after President Trump announced that the United States was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and set in motion the process of relocating the U.S. embassy there. Egyptian Coptic Pope Tawadros II canceled a scheduled meeting with Vice President Pence in condemnation of the move.
“There’s a huge failure to engage Middle East Christians on their own merit, not in reference to the Jews or the United States, but just as Christians, who these people are, preserving our faith in hostile conditions for 2,000 years,” Nicholson told The Christian Post during Q&A when asked why many American Christians hesitate to criticize Israel particularly when Middle Eastern Christians have legitimate grievances with the Jewish state.
Nicholson recounted that on a recent trip to Jerusalem he spoke with an Arab Christian who was one of the few remaining Christian shopkeepers in the Christian quarter of the Old City. He had recently moved to the Jewish quarter of the city because it was a nicer neighborhood but said he hoped to one day move to Canada because the persistent antagonism he experiences.
“To the Jews, I am an Arab, to the Arabs, I am a Christian,” this shopkeeper told him, recounting the opposition he gets from the both camps.
Many Western Christians who desire to engage Middle Eastern Christians do so out of sympathy for their plight given the persecution they endure and want to help or thinking that it would be better for Israel if they help them, Nicholson said.
“I always remind people that to engage with Middle East Christians you don’t have to go to the Middle East. There’s probably one in your neighborhood. There’s probably one of their churches nearby where you can begin to sit, shut up, listen and learn.”
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As to the conflict between Israeli Jews and Middle East Christians, particularly regarding the grievances Middle Eastern Christians have with the Israeli government, it is hard for Western Christians supportive of Israel to deal with, he went on to say.
“It just doesn’t fit [their] paradigm … but I think educating people and helping them re-frame why Israel is important” matters, he said.
While the modern nation-state of Israel is the sovereign means by which the Jewish people protect themselves, American Christians’ support Israel because we support the Jewish people, not the other way around, he continued.
“We don’t support the Jews just because there is an Israel. I think a lot of people unconsciously do that.”
“Helping them reframe why Israel is important, getting to the first thing — that the Jewish people have a right to be a people in their homeland — and then saying, ‘look, after that, there’s all kinds of disagreements,” he reiterated, stressing the importance of elevating the profile and giving platforms to Middle Eastern Christians.
Nicholson said he was recently in New York with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley alongside dozens of other activists in a meeting about Christians in the Middle East but there were only two actual Middle Eastern Christians in the whole room.
“When you hear an Israeli Christian tell his story … when they tell the story, it is easier for the listener to put it all together and see the nuance.”