A ‘dangerous man’ or a ‘great friend’?
The descriptions of the US Vice President Mike Pence by two politicians in the same country in the Middle East over the last 24 hours illustrate how divisive Donald Trump’s administration is in the region. Pence, an evangelical Christian and the main access point for religious leaders’ into the White House, is on the last leg of a three-country tour including Egypt, Jordan and Israel.
The trip has been boycotted by Palestinian figures, including Palestinian church leaders, and Pence will not visit Bethlehem, a typical destination in the West Bank for Western dignitaries because of its Christian significance.
But the strong feelings towards the White House on both sides are not limited to politicians but also persecuted Christians – a group Trump, and most importantly his evangelical backers, have vowed to support. Not all are convinced of Trump’s motives and more are doubtful whether it will actually help.
Michael, not his real name, is an evangelical church leader in Cairo, Egypt, which has shot up the ranks of the worst country in the world to be a Christian, according to persecution watchdog Open Doors. It is also the country where members of Trump’s nominal evangelical advisory board met with President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to discuss the attacks on Christians.
Egyptians are laughing at Trump, he said in an interview with Christian Today. In general Egyptian society, including Christians, doesn’t care about what Trump says or does because however much his supporters talk about persecution, it makes little difference to those actually being persecuted.
‘Men in suits,’ he said dismissively when asked about the significance of the meeting between Sisi and the evangelical leaders. ‘That does not really excite me – those type of front-of-camera meetings. I am almost sure what the president told them word by word.
‘This nice delegation has taken the fight out of the country and gone home and what stays in the country stays in the country. The situation stays the same.’
But Johnnie Moore, one of the key members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board who attended the meeting in Cairo, dismissed that suggestion.
‘They [Egyptian politicians] are very very interested in making sure the US is happy with their policy towards Christians,’ he told Christian Today. ‘If it wasn’t for the influence of the Trump administration I don’t believe there would be 200,000 Egyptian police protecting churches across the country.
‘I don’t believe the Grand Imam would have encouraged Muslims across the country to celebrate Christmas. I don’t believe the Grand Mufti would have made the declaration that Muslims who die protecting churches are martyrs.’
He added: ‘Turkey I see moving in the exact opposite direction. But I can see Egypt moving as quickly as is possible in a positive direction.’ A change, Moore said, that is a large part thanks to Trump’s relationship with Sisi.
There is no doubt that Trump has invested heavily in his relationship with the Egyptian leader. Even after the decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Pence was met by Sisi and the pair described the intense disagreement as one ‘between friends’.
But what concerns Michael and others who agree with him is that Trump’s influence will not only do no good for Christians, it may even harm them.
In the wake of the Jerusalem decision Palestinian church leaders issued a fierce rebuke of the US president. They ’emphasised that the decision is illegal, undermines peace, and runs contrary to Christian teachings’. Others warned it would cause ‘irreparable harm’ and also ‘condemned any attempts to Judaize Jerusalem or obliterate its Arab identity.’
What worries many Christian leaders in the region is that Trump’s overt support of persecuted Christians may cause them to be attacked even more, such is the hatred for him among Muslim fanatics.
There is particular anxiety around the US decision to divert aid for the Middle East away from the United Nations and directly to persecuted religious groups on the ground.
‘Our fellow Christians and all who are persecuted in the Middle East should not have to rely on multinational institutions when America can help them directly,’ the Vice President told the lobby group In Defense of Christians’ gala dinner announcing the move.
The United Nations insists it distributes aid on the basis of need but a number of Christian leaders in Syria and Iraq have reported that Christians avoid the UN camps where aid is given out because they are controlled by Muslims and fear attack.
‘Here is the sad reality,’ Pence went on. ‘The United Nations claims that more than 160 projects are in Christian areas. But for a third of those projects, there are no Christians to help. The believers in Nineveh Iraq have had less than two per cent of their housing needs addressed and the majority of Christians and Yazidis remain in shelters. Projects that are supposedly marked finished have little more than a UN flag hung outside an unusable building, in many cases a school.’
Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, told Christian Today the UK would not be following the US example, saying that picking out Christians for support would only make them more of a target for radicals.
But Moore defended the decision, saying the UN is in fact ‘discriminating against Christians’ because they are have been targeted by ISIS but are not receiving specific support.
‘While professing to embrace a policy of non-discrimination they have done the exact opposite,’ he told Christian Today.
‘Meanwhile nations like Iran have been more than happy to fill the gap. In Christian towns you already have a Shiite mosque and school funded by the Iranians.
‘The prioritisation of people based upon religion isn’t the wrong thing to do. If people are targeted for their religious beliefs they ought to be the recipients of particular assistance.’
Hannah, again not her real name, is from Pakistan, another country where Trump has caused outrage in threatening to withdraw aid funding and accusing it of sponsoring terrorism.
She said the situation is so bad for Christians that Trump’s support can only make it better.
‘For Pakistani Christians it is almost a relief that someone is saying it,’ she said in an interview with Christian Today. ‘They may not agree with a lot of things the president does but that is not the point. The point is someone is saying to it. There is finally someone who is saying it.’
She went on: ‘When you are silenced so much as a community, to have someone else speak up loudly at times we actually find there are Christians who are like: “Phew, someone said it.”
‘Whether it is helpful or not helpful, regardless there would be this animosity.
‘It doesn’t add to the sense of Christians being tied to the West because that already exists. This doesn’t make it worse.’
Mike Pence will fly home to the US on Tuesday with no doubt about the strength of feeling towards his boss, if he had any doubts before. Some, like Moore, are convinced Trump is bringing the region ‘a dose of reality’ that will shake things up and potentially change for the good. Many other Christians, despite the support from evangelicals in the US, are wary that siding with the president will only jeopardise their situation in the long run.
But for others, like Hannah, the situation cannot get much worse. Trump words may be inflammatory but they cannot do any more damage than is already being done. For Hannah maybe, just maybe, Trump may actually help.