Ted Cruz Tells Middle East Christians To “Stand With Israel”

From Tristyn Bloom at the Daily Caller:

Sen. Ted Cruz was booed offstage at a conference for Middle Eastern Christians Wednesday night after saying that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”

…”If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he said. “Then I will not stand with you. Good night, and God bless.” And with that, he walked off the stage.

The report also includes a short video.

Cruz was speaking at the Inaugural Summit Gala Dinner of In Defense of Christians, a new initiative to highlight the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East and Sudan. The organisation groups “Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories” together as “the Holy Land”; its president is a Lebanese businessman named Toufic Baaklini, and the Board of Advisors ranges from James Zogby through to John Ashcroft. According to Cruz’s own account:

“I told the attendees that those who hate Israel also hate America,” Cruz said. “That those who hate Jews also hate Christians. And that anyone who hates Israel and the Jewish people is not following the teachings of Christ. These statements were met with angry boos. I went on to tell the crowd that Christians in the Middle East have no better friend than Israel. That Christians can practice their faith free of persecution in Israel. And that ISIS, al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah, along with their state sponsors in Syria and Iran, are all part of the same cancer, murdering Christians and Jews alike. Hate is hate, and murder is murder.”

Baaklini has now issued a statement about the disruption:

“As Cardinal Rai so eloquently put it to the attendees of the In Defense of Christians’ inaugural Summit gala dinner: ‘At every wedding, there are a few wedding crashers.’ In this case, a few politically motivated opportunists chose to divide a room that for more than 48 hours sought unity in opposing the shared threat of genocide, faced not only by our Christian brothers and sisters, but our Jewish brothers and sisters and people of all other faiths and all people of good will.

“Tonight’s injection of politics when the focus should have been on unity and faith, momentarily played into the hands of a few who do not adhere to IDC’s principles.  They were made no longer welcome…”

Prior to the event, the Washington Free Beacon had already drawn attention to “pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad speakers” billed to appear, also including quotes from Rai.

The fiasco brings into sharp relief some of the tensions around support for Christian minorities in the Middle East. For a large segment of US Christianity, support for Israel and philo-Semitism are now central to religious belief and activism: but these priorities reflect a particular ideological/political and cultural outlook that reflects American society today. But this is very different from the context of Christians living in traditional Middle Eastern societies,  particularly those belonging to local denominations and churches less connected with the West. Strands of historic Christian anti-Jewish discourse are less likely to have been expunged, and even where ancient religious prejudice against Jews is not an operative factor, there’s no reason why the automatic support for Israel we find with Christian Zionism would follow.

There’s also a more pertinent explanation for why Cruz’s speech was not well received; as the Daily Caller article (perhaps surprisingly) notes:

Many Christians in the Middle East take issue with Israeli military policy, which has made life for Palestinian Christians in their homeland very difficult, and driven many from their homes. “Israel’s policies have led to demographic pressure that’s made the West Bank and Gaza far more Muslim than in 1948,” explained one Middle East analyst.

I’m reminded of an incident from 2006, when Reps. Joseph Crowley and Michael McCaul withdrew a draft resolution on the plight of Palestinian Christians, rather than acknowledge Palestinian complaints about the occupation as a factor in their decline.

So who will Middle East Christians turn to, if Americans demand a form of Christian Zionism in return for solidarity? A 2013 report from Vatican Insider, describing “Russia’s ‘Protectorate’ over Middle East Christians“, has the obvious answer.

UPDATE: I’ve just come across an article in the Algemeiner by CAMERA’s Dexter Van Zile that appeared a couple of days ago; Van Zile draws attention to concerns from the Middle East Christian Committee (MECHRIC) that the conference will “promote support for Assad in Syria and normalization with the Mullahs in Iran”, and claims that a weak section on Iran was added to the IDC site only after CAMERA noted its absence. Further:

The conference has also attracted the attention and generated some criticism in a French language newspaper, L’Orient Le Jour. On August 28, the paper published an article asking if the summit was intended to promote the interests of Tehran and Damascus.

The paper reported that one of the backers of IDC’s conference was Gilbert Chagoury, a Lebanese businessman who was born in Nigeria and made his fortune in that country.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Chagoury was close to Nigeria’s military dictator Sani Abacha, and that because of his association, Abacha, “helped him land lucrative business contracts in construction and other areas.” After Abacha’s death, Chagoury was forced to return $300 million to that country to unfreeze his bank accounts.

The article is headlined “Has Pro-Christian Conference Been Hijacked by Pro-Iran/Hezbollah Dhimmis?” The word “Dhimmi” here is of course polemical hyperbole, deployed to suggest that the participants are making choices due to internalized oppression or coercion.

UPDATE 2: Interesting commentary from Matt K. Lewis, drawing on Russ Douhat:

Douthat is suggesting that the crowd wasn’t booing Israel, instead, they were booing Cruz for playing politics — for having the audacity to lecture them about their own business.

Remember that Republican debate where the crowd booed a gay soldier? The optics were horrible, but here’s what I always suspected. I always suspected that they weren’t booing the soldier so much as they were booing the media for setting them up.

They were booing the media for the unseemly way they were using this soldier to advance the notion that conservatives are anti-gay. They were booing the media for focusing on this one wedge issue when there are so many important issues. They were booing the media for framing the debate when it should really be up to Republicans to select their nominee. They were booing because they were being used as a pawn — as a backdrop — to make a larger point (at their expense, no less).

Yakunin Outfit Hides Involvement of Larry Jacobs and Don Feder in Conference Committee

At Mother Jones, Hannah Levintova has an interesting detail about what happened when she asked the World Congress of Families about its involvement with a “Large Families: The Future of Humanity” conference currently taking place in Moscow:

 WCF managing director Larry Jacobs and WCF communications director Don Feder were listed on the forum’s seven-member organizing committee.

As of last Friday, when Mother Jones asked WCF for comment, Jacob and Feder were still on the list of organizers. By Sunday, the committee list had disappeared from both the English and Russian versions of the website of the Istoki Fund, an endowment run by Vladimir Yakunin, a close adviser to President Vladimir Putin who codirects several of the conference’s sponsoring organizations. The original page, including the committee list, is archived here. A copy of the original press release on the site of another Yakunin-affiliated conference sponsor has also vanished. (Here’s the Russian original.)

Levintova previously noted the members of the committee here; they include the billionaire businessman Konstantin Malofeev (blogged here) and Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, who heads the Moscow Patriarch’s commission on the family.

The conference had originally been scheduled as a WCF event, although the WCF formally withdrew due to the “geopolitical situation”. Jacobs issued a statement a few days ago:

The Russian Organizing Committee determined they wanted to go ahead a conference anyway. We understand, as they do, that the conference that convenes this week in Moscow is not a part of the World Congress of Families.

A few World Congress of Families personnel plan on attending the conference as individuals and supporting our Russian civil society friends who are working to protect the unborn child and the natural family. Though we will be present, as was agreed by the International Planning Committee many months ago, the WCF is not financially supporting the conference in Moscow this week and we have not lent our name to what should be a very interesting conference.

So why the need to scrub the details from the Istoki Fund? Levintova notes a problem with Yakunin and with one of the other organisers, Elena Mizulina:

Yakunin and Mizulina are currently on [Office of Foreign Assets and Control]‘s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list. Once someone is on the list, American citizens and businesses “are generally prohibited from dealing with them,” according to OFAC, which administers economic and trade sanctions.

The Human Rights Campaign (the USA’s “largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization”) has called on the US Treasury to investigate.

Mizulina previously featured on this blog last year, after she became the inspiration for a sexually explicit painting by Konstantin Altunin. The AP describes her as “Vladimir Putin’s new morality crusader, spearheading efforts to curb gay rights, punish online cursing and impose a tax on divorce.” Yakunin, meanwhile, has appeared on numerous occasions; alongside his links to US religious conservatives through the WCF, his World Public Forum initiative has built links with international academics, religious figures, and some other more eccentric characters.

The Moscow Times has some details of the conference itself; there are few surprises:

In choosing conservative values, Russia represents “the final hope” for the modern world, which has been corrupted by the Western debauchery of individualism, consumerism and globalization, participants of a Moscow forum agreed Wednesday.

…Participants lashed out against abortion, same-sex marriage and gay pride parades as threats to Russia’s traditional spiritual core.

President Vladimir Putin sent a greeting to participants via an official from his administration. In his message, Putin spoke about the “large-scale demographic crisis” that civilization faces and “the erosion of moral values” around the world.

UPDATE: Right Wing Watch has some further details, including a link to the schedule. RWW notes in particular the presence of Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, and the far-right French politician Aymeric Chauprade.

The line-up also includes other Americans, such as Austin Ruse (who has his own links with Yakunin and Malofeev) and Evelyn Beahr of Movieguide (Ted Baehr’s daughter), and participants from western Europe, Africa, China, and Iran. There are also two speakers from Ukraine: Sergey Belyakov of the Parents’ Committee of Ukraine, will speak on “Family Policy in Ukraine: Conclusions and Warnings for Russia”, while Bishop Panteleimon Povoroznyuk will discuss “Family Crisis in the Modern Ukraine”.

Keeping the British end up are Ben Harris-Quinney of the Bow Group, and Thomas Ward of the National Association of Catholic Families and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

Christian Zionist Elvis Drama Sees Poor Reviews and Box-Office Takings

From the Hollywood Reporter:

Faith-based Elvis musical drama The Identical bombed at the North American box office, falling outside the top 10 with $1.91 million. The independent movie cost more than $32 million to make and market.

Identical is playing in 1,956 theaters. If the theater count was rounded up, its debut would mark the third-worst opening of all time for a film playing in 2,000 or more locations, not accounting for inflation…

The story concerns not Presley himself, but rather a fictional “Drexel Hemsley” character whose twin brother is adopted by a Tennessee preacher played by Ray Liotta.

The film currently has 53 “rotten” reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, versus just two “fresh” positive assessments. And the positive reviews damn with faint praise: the Hollywood Reporter itself describes the film as “passably palatable”.

The film has, however, been heavily promoted by Drew Zahn at WND. In a piece last week, Zahn described it as a “Hollywood Hit”, and highlighted a scene set in 1967 in which Ray Liotta, playing a Tennessee preacher, urges support for Israel during the Six-Day War:

Liotta’s character tells his 1967 congregation why the war a world away is so important: “What does that have to do with the Christian church in the state of Tennessee? Everything! It has to do with everything! We are commanded by the Word of God to give Him no rest from our prayers. For who? Today for Israel. If we love God we must love what God loves, and God loves his chosen people!”

The article includes an embedded video, in which executive producer Yochanan Marcellino (the director’s father) expands portentously on the same theme:

…It is our responsibility now as it was then [in 1967] for Zion’s sake, not to be silent. We are commanded in Scripture to give God no rest from our prayers for Israel. I encourage you to hear God’s heart for his chosen people, and the miracle he performs for Israel during the Six-Day War.

Alas, however, Zahn’s follow up piece on the “Hollywood Hit” is less up-beat: under the headline “Christians Sabotage Gospel in Hollywood”, the author rebukes Christians for failing to support the film, and warns that the church needs to “get serious about culture war”:

The moviemakers spent tens of millions marketing this film – a budget most Christian movies could only dream about – through churches, Christian radio and other key outlets. The movie stars big Hollywood names like Ashley Judd, Seth Green and Ray Liotta… It also delivers a profoundly Christian message in the context of a story that you don’t have to be a pew-sitter to love.

In other words, it’s just the kind of film that could take Christ outside the church walls. All it needs to succeed and to see more films like it made, to see the candle become a blaze in our culture, is for Christians to go see it. That’s it.

But even Zahn is forced to concede that the film “has some flaws”.

The film is produced by City of Peace Films, of Nashville. Marcellino also has an associated company, City of Peace Media, which in 2012 brought together various Christian singers for a CD called iStandforIsrael (tagline: “for love of God and country”).

Helen Ukpabio: Spiritual Lawfare

From the British Humanist Association:

The British Humanist Association (BHA) and Witchcraft and Human Rights Information Network (WHRIN) are being sued by the wealthy evangelical preacher and ‘witch hunter’ Helen Ukpabio who has dubbed herself a ‘Lady Apostle’. Mrs Ukpabio claims to have expertise in identifying children and adults who are possessed with witchcraft spirits and in how they can be ‘delivered’ from those spirits. Her lawyers have informed the BHA and WHRIN that she is launching a legal case against them due to their criticism of her teachings and methods.

…Her legal case against the BHA is based on Mrs Ukpabio’s stating that she wrote that a child ‘under the age of two’ who is ‘possessed with black, red and vampire witchcraft spirits’ can be identified by features such as s/he ‘screams at night, cries, is always feverish, suddenly deteriorates in health, puts up an attitude of fear, and may not feed very well.’ Her teachings are to the effect that babies under the age of two who exhibit signs of illness or standard, entirely normal childhood behaviour (such as crying, not feeding well, screaming at night, having a fever) may be possessed by vampire witchcraft spirits. She also teaches that children who stamp their feet may be ‘trying to make signs… to communicate with gnomes, the witchcraft spirit in charge of the earth.’ Ukpabio claims that the BHA misrepresented her by saying that she ascribed these symptoms to Satanic possession and hence has damaged her reputation and livelihood to the sum of half a billion pounds.

…Gary Foxcroft, Executive Director of WHRIN, commented, ‘This court case is the latest in a long line of unsuccessful legal actions that Helen Ukpabio has pursued against me and other human rights activists. Previous cases were thrown out of court in Nigeria but this time she is looking to take action in a UK court. I have no doubt that a judge in the UK will reach the same conclusion as those in Nigeria.’

(Actually, Ukpabio doesn’t just “dub herself” an apostle; she was consecrated in a special ceremony in 2010, which I wrote about here).

I discussed Ukpabio’s previous court cases here and here; her targets have included the actress Sophie Okonedo, because she narrated the Channel 4 documentary about child-witch accusations in Nigeria that brought Ukpabio to wide international attention in 2008.

As far as I am aware, the largest libel payout in British legal history remains the £1.5 million that was awarded to Lord Aldington in 1989 – and that was in an age before measures were taken to prevent excessive awards. Ukpabio’s claim is more than 300 times that amount, and if successful would be most sensational libel award in British (and perhaps world) legal history. So, which distinguished libel specialist is Ukpabio using? Carter-Ruck, perhaps? Or Schillings, maybe?

The Independent has the details:

In a letter sent to the BHA’s lawyers last Thursday, solicitors acting for the controversial preacher accused the charity of causing “members of the public to regard our client as an evil woman” with the damage to her reputation resulting in a “huge loss of incomes to her churches”. The letter, from London-based Graceland Solicitors, claims Mrs Ukpadio is “a Christian leader of international repute known and respected in many countries of the world”.

Graceland has an office above a beauty salon in Woolwich, and also shop-front premises in Lewisham – an image of the Lewisham chambers can be seen here. According to the company’s website, it was founded in 2006 and specialises in “Immigration Matters, Housing, Employments [sic], Family / Divorce, Crime, Traffic Offences”. The site does not name the actual solicitors at the offices, although other sites indicate that the proprietor is a certain Adolph Okoro.