by James J. Zogby
This week a coalition of mostly far-right “Christian” organizations hosted a conference in Washington that claimed to be defending persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Given the very real threat facing vulnerable ancient religious communities at the hands of barbarous groups like ISIS, one might be inclined to commend the organizers for their timely initiative. However, after examining the groups involved and list of invited speakers, the conference’s purposes appear to be dangerously provocative and even sinister.
Among the featured speakers are a handful of notorious Islamophobes and a strange collection of individuals who claim to have been “radical Muslims”, of one stripe or another, all of whom say they have now converted to Christianity and have come forward to tell their conversion stories.
One of the headliners is Frank Gaffney who heads an organization which the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) identifies as an “anti-Muslim hate group”. Gaffney is one of the main propagators of the notion that President Obama “may be a Muslim” and that Hillary Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, is a secret operative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Another speaker representing an SPLC-listed hate group is Retired General William Boykin, a Bush-era Pentagon official who gained notoriety when it was revealed that he had repeatedly compared the Iraq war to the Crusades boasting that the US/Christian side was bound to win because “our God is bigger than theirs”. Boykin has also said that “Islam is evil” and should not be protected by the First Amendment.
Among the others scheduled to address the event were a number of evangelical preachers, Trump supporters, and Christian missionaries devoted to converting Muslims.
To inspire the attendees, organizers invited a number of “converts” to share their stories. One of them, Tass Saada, claims to have been a “PLO sniper” until he saw the light and converted to Christianity. He founded “Hope for Ishmael” to lead other Muslims to convert. Joining him will be Daniel Shayesteh, an Iranian American who claims to have been an “Islamic extremist” at age 9. He later became a Christian and has since founded “Exodus from Darkness”.
It was especially troubling that a number of conservative Republican Members of Congress and State Department officials were scheduled to speak to the conference. Their presence was intended to give legitimacy to the event.
On being made aware of the conference, my organization, the Arab American Institute, crafted a letter to the congressmen urging them to withdraw their support, detailing the dangers this gathering posed for the very people it claimed to be supporting. Endorsed by the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, our letter, in part, read,
We write to you to convey our deep concern with an upcoming conference, “The Bridge: The Annual Conference on the Persecuted Church”… The conference’s program gives a platform to well-known anti-Arab and anti-Muslim activists whose work advances a dangerous agenda of fear and misunderstanding.
We share with you the belief that it is of utmost importance to defend the rights of persecuted Christians and other vulnerable faith communities across the Middle East. Moreover, we believe that it is critical that we work to ensure that these faith communities not merely be protected as minorities but guaranteed full and equal citizenship rights in every country in the region. While some in Washington, D.C. believe that the interests of persecuted Christians can be advanced through bashing Islam and its adherents, the truth is that these tactics do nothing to advance or defend the rights of persecuted Christians.
At a time when the public discourse in the United States has looked at Arab and Muslims across the world with acute suspicion, it is critically important that our public officials help combat hateful rhetoric and elevate leaders who speak to our highest ideals of mutual respect and understanding… We are concerned that this conference may have the unfortunate consequence of legitimizing the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim messages and policies that are associated with its speakers and will in the end do more harm than good to the persecuted communities the conference organizers claim to be defending.
We believe that your participation and/or endorsement of this event would empower these voices of bigotry, not defend the rights of religiously persecuted Christians, as the conference claims to do. With these considerations in mind, we respectfully request that you withdraw from participating in this event.
The Members of Congress did not withdraw, but on the day the before the conference was to begin Frank Gaffney’s name was removed from the speaker’s list.
James J. Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. Photo: Copts praying in Tahrir Square in Cairo.