Speakers don't dismiss Obama's plans, but emphasize the need to change hearts.
WASHINGTON – The day after President Obama authorized military air power against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, Christian intellectuals and activists called for using soft power to defeat the militants.
Christian leaders did not reject Obama’s policy of using limited air strikes against ISIL or ISIS. They indicated the policy was necessary but not sufficient to defeat the terrorist organization. Building coalitions with moderate Muslims and empowering them is a better strategy, they said.
“The only people who can defeat this (threat) in the long run are Muslims. These are people who by making appeals in the public square have been accused of blasphemy and in effect, heresy,” Thomas Farr, director of the religious freedom project at Georgetown University’s Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, said Thursday.
Christian intellectuals and activists did not utter the phrase “soft power,” which Harvard’s Joseph Nye coined to refer to power used to persuade or co-opt rather than coerce. Yet they endorsed the concept at a three-day conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel here. In Defense of Christians, an international non-profit organization, organized the event in part to lobby federal lawmakers and the media about the plight of persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Obama’s televised address included a pledge by the administration to continue to provide humanitarian aid to “tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities.” The thrust of his speech, however, was a vow to wage a broader airstrike campaign against ISIL in Iraq as well as Syria. He said in concert with European and some Arab countries, the United States “will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat.”
On August 8, Obama announced he authorized the use of air power in Iraq and would deploy more than 1,000 U.S. troops and military advisers to the region.
Farr said Obama’s speech should have emphasized the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria more strongly. “Certainly, he mentioned it, but he did not focus on it. in my opinion. as he should have,” Farr said.
Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, echoed Farr’s point that Christians should reach out to moderate Muslims in the region. “We must build coalitions. Christians in the Middle East are simply not big enough in terms of population and are doomed to fail if they don’t partner with them,” Shea said.
Nermien Riad, executive director of Coptic Orphans, said Christian leaders should follow the lead of the Catholic schools in Egypt that serve Christian and Muslim alike. “There is no better place to instill the value of love than in children going to school with others,” Riad said.
Father Nabil Haddad, a priest in the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and CEO of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Center, said Christians in the Middle East have made progress in working with moderate Muslims. He noted on Thursday that it was not only the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon but also the first anniversary that the King of Jordan spoke at and organized a conference to promote interfaith cooperation. “It was an historic moment,” Father Haddad said in an interview after the morning forum.
Several speakers referred to Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas leaving the stage after the audience booed him for his repeated affirmations of the state of Israel Wednesday evening. Some participants have criticized Israel’s conduct of war against Palestinians in Gaza. Shea, who introduced Cruz Wednesday, said Christians “must stand united for all Christians, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Jews (in the Middle East).” The audience of 60 to 80 members gave her light applause. “Thank you,” Shea said. “Everyone has the right to free speech.”
Mark Stricherz is based in Washington. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.