The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Elizabeth Eaton gave an interview last month to Lebanon-based news channel Al Mayadeen. The bishop appeared on the Arabic-language show called Ajras Al Machrek (‘Bells of the Orient’), targeted towards Middle East Christian. The Presiding Bishop gave her take on the recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria, and how best to deal with ISIS.
The only problem? Al Mayadeen is an Iranian and Syrian-backed television channel known for its pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah propaganda.
The Associated Press notes that Al Mayadeen was formed in response to concerns that channels like Al Jazeera were “biased against the regimes in Syria and Iran and their close ally in Lebanon, the powerful Shiite militant group Hezbollah.” In addition, the AP notes that Al Mayadeen “promises to support the Palestinian cause and all forms of “resistance” — a term in Mideast parlance usually used to describe Hezbollah and other groups that fight Israel.” The Daily Telegraph and National Review columnist Tom Rogan bluntly characterizes Al Mayadeen as “a propaganda arm of Hezbollah and Iran.” The general manager of Al Mayadeen previously served as the director of another Hezbollah-affiliated channel, while the network’s division head has a wife who serves as Syrian dictator Bashir Al-Assad communications advisor.
Even if its ideological bent weren’t problematic enough, Al Mayadeen refuses to disclose its financial backers. “Al Mayadeen channel is a joint venture between the Iranians and Rami Makhlouf, who is the cousin of President Bashar al-Assad,” one source toldFrance 24, “The Iranians put [in] I think $5 million and Rami Makhlouf put [in] $25 million.”
At times, that bias showed throughout the interview. During his opening remarks, host Ghassan Shami referred to the almost two thousands “martyrs” who died in Gaza. Unfortunately, that figure includes not just civilians, but members of terrorists groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Interestingly enough, later in the interview he insisted on pointing out that Islamist groups wanting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad were on international terrorist lists.
The first topic of conversation was the recent Gazan conflict, during which Bishop Eaton’s comments were mostly in line with the ELCA’s somewhat liberal position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She reiterated the ELCA’s commitment to the two-state solution, “with a viable, contiguous Palestinian state and a secure Israel.” She called for a cessation of all violence from both sides and called for an end to the “illegal Israeli settlements” and the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. When pressed by Shami, Bishop Eaton clarified that the ELCA does not support the boycott, sanction and divestment (BDS) movement, but that it does support “positive investment” in Palestinian businesses and it does urge the U.S. government not to give grants to Israel while settlement construction continues.
Perhaps a more problematic part of Bishop Eaton’s comments was that she continually referred to the existence of a “Palestinian state.” Palestinian statehood is a politically charged question, with Israel, the United States, and Western Europe refusing to recognize any existing Palestinian state. Indeed, given that the ELCA explicitly supports establishing a Palestinian state, speaking as though one already exists probably does her own cause harm.
From there, the discussion turned to the plight of Iraqi Christians, which began with the usual disclaimers. “We recognize though that ISIS does not represent Islam,” Bishop Eaton said, “this is not something that faithful Muslims could support.” She urged all peace-loving people of any religious background to come together to pray for peace and make their voices heard.
Bishop Eaton laid out the types of humanitarian aid her church was lending to the region, but made it clear she hadn’t pressured the White House to act in any specific manner. “I cannot direct the President of the United States, and neither can my church, to take any sort of diplomatic action, though we do urge that there be some relief given to these people.”
Shami seemed skeptical that prayer was enough. “Prayer is great for believers, but can prayer alone save these people?” he asked through a translator.
“It’s essential,” Bishop Eaton responded, “Is it sufficient? Only God, I think, working through human agency can bring about a solution to a situation as complicated as we’re seeing in the Levant right now. So, prayer is sufficient…”
Shami pointed out that many Western countries such as France have offered to take refugees from the crisis, which he skeptically called a “forced migration.” “Well I can’t speak for France, but I know we have no intention of luring Christians away from their homeland,” the bishop said, “In fact, our belief is that Arab Christianity is essential to that region… so we do not lure people away.”
Increasingly, Shami pressed Bishop Eaton to support something more than just prayer and calls for peace: “Bishop, do you count only on good intentions, or do we need strong, determined wills?”
“Strong wills, but not violence,” she said simply.
The situation than turned to the plight of Syrian Christians. Unsurprisingly, the al Mayadeen host was deeply critical of any prospect of a political solution between Assad and the rebels, especially ISIS. Again, Bishop Eaton believed that diplomacy could end the conflict. “…[M]ilitary force doesn’t seem to be as effective as trying to get people together to have conversation with each other. And maybe we’ll have to form unusual alliances… we must put aside our differences in order that we can together come and reason with people who don’t really want to have any sense of reason.”
Video of the interview, which lasted forty minutes, can be viewed on the ELCA’s Youtube page here.