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Michael Jansen: United in anger
December 22, 2017
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At the October 24th-25th summit convened by a US organisation called In Defence of Christians, the keynote speaker was Vice President Mike Pence. The focus was on the perils Christians in this region have faced, particularly from Daesh, which has targeted Muslims, Christians and others not subscribing to its radical ideology.

During his address, Pence said one of the purposes of his mission was to promote policies that would “end the persecution of Christians and all religious minorities,” dismissing the persecution the Muslim majority wherever Daesh was present. He assured the conference that Donald Trump is “committed to helping persecuted peoples reclaim their lands, return to their homes, rebuild their lives, and replant the roots” of their ancient faiths. He also pledged funding for this endeavour. To this end, Pence said he would undertake a mission to the region in mid-January or February with the aim of meeting prelates and policy makers.

Thanks to regional uproar over Donald Trump’s December 6th proclamation recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — a renunciation of 70 years of US policy — Pence postponed his pre-Christmas mission to save Christians until February, claiming he had to be present in Washington for the Congressional vote on tax reform. The vice president casts a vote in case of a tie in the Senate. He would be well advised to call his mission off.

If his visit had gone ahead he would not have met a single Christian or Muslim prelate or member of the most persecuted nation in the region, the Palestinians.

Pence’s tour was meant to begin in Jerusalem where he would have been received by Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, addressed the Knesset and  visited the Holocaust Memorial and the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall of the platform where Roman era Jewish King Herod build his temple. Since the 7th-8th centuries this site has hosted al-Haram al-Sharif, the compound where al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located.

He would have then visited Bethlehem where he was to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and tour the Church of the Nativity, which, by tradition, stands on the site of the birth of Jesus. He was to be welcomed by the heads of the diverse Christian communities present in the city and to urge Abbas to extend recognition to evangelical churches seeking converts in the Holy Land. While in Jerusalem, it was suggested Pence might visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located on the site where Jesus was crucified.

Pence’s next port of call was to be Cairo where he was to hold discussions with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Shaikh al-Azhar Ahmad Tayyeb, the world’s senior Sunni scholar, and Coptic Pope Tawadros, who heads a flock of eight million, the region’s largest Christian community. 

Coinciding with his mission, Egypt circulated a draft resolution in the Security Council, regretting Trump’s shift on Jerusalem. The resolution read: “Any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded.” The draft called on all countries not to open embassies in Jerusalem and demanded UN member-states do not recognise actions contrary to UN resolutions on the status of the city. The resolution, as expected, was vetoed by the US. All 14 other UN Security Council members voted in favour, leaving the US isolated and exposed to further criticism.

It is significant that Maronite Catholic Patriarch and Cardinal Beshara al-Rai of Lebanon was among the honoured guests at the October conference where Pence advertised his mission. In response to Trump’s betrayal over Jerusalem, al-Rai stated, it “violates international resolutions, defies international and regional will, and is a slap in the face of Palestinians, Levantine Christians, Muslims and all Arabs.” He rejected Pence’s mission as unwelcome intervention in the region. “What destroyed us have been the wars provoked by external agents in Palestine, Iraq and Syria..and now, please spare us the melodrama of Westerners asking us what they can do to save Christians.”

Pence’s mission to the Christians of this region was meant to show US evangelicals who constitute a large part of Trump’s constituency that Washington is no longer relying on the UN to defend and provide for Christians in this troubled region. This ploy has not paid off due to Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem and Muslim-Christian resistance his stand provoked.

His move is seen within the context of his racist attitude and damaging policies towards Muslims. During his campaign he accused then President Barack Obama and Democratic party rival Hillary Clinton of being founders of Daesh and fought with the parents of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq. He proposed a temporary ban on Muslim entry to the US and called for a “watch list” to spy on the 3.3 million Muslims living in the US. Muslims constitute one per cent of the population. 

 Critics argue Trump is personally anti-Muslim and exploited anti-Muslim feelings to win votes from people who agree with him. In March 2016, he said, “I think Islam hates us.” On other occasions, the erratic Trump said, “I love Muslims.” Whatever the truth is among his first actions after his inauguration, on January 27th Trump signed an order temporarily banning citizens of seven Muslim countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Yemen and Somalia — from accessing US visas and entering the US. After protests from ally Baghdad, Iraq was dropped. 

The travel ban was approved by the Supreme court two days before Trump made his Jerusalem declaration. A week before this policy shift, Trump retweeted three anti-Muslim videos circulated by a British hard right faction called Britain First. His endorsement of this content prompted British Prime Minister Theresa May to say Trump was “wrong” to take up the videos, adding that “Britain First seeks to divide communities through their use of hateful narratives which peddle lies and stoke tensions.” She said Britons rejected the damaging rhetoric of the far right. Most seem to, at least.

A leading US civil liberties organisation, The Council on American-Islamic Relations, reported last September that there has been a nearly 600 per cent rise in anti-Muslim activity in the US since 2014. Last year there were 2,200 anti-Muslim incidents, a 57 per cent increase in anti-Muslim bias and a 44 per cent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. The report said anti-Muslim activities spiked during the election campaign and have continued to rise.

Trump’s campaign and time in office has inspired anti-Hispanic and anti-black racists to surface and take an aggressive part in political debate and carry out racist actions and attacks. Muslims are not alone.

___________________________________________

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict
 

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