A delegation of Syrian Christian leaders met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week to lobby against aid to the Syrian opposition, drawing fire from critics who claim the group's efforts are aiding the Assad regime.
The delegation included a controversial Syrian pastor who has expressed support for Hezbollah and accused the United States of terrorism, as well as several Syrian leaders with a history of anti-Israel comments.
They met with members of Congress, Obama administration officials, and policy experts during their tour.
According to the Westminster Institute, which cosponsored the trip with Barnabas Aid, the group was in Washington to bring attention to attacks on Syrian Christians by radical elements of the rebel forces and to support the negotiations between world leaders and Syrian leaders in Geneva.
However, critics said the Syrian government has previously used religious leaders to lobby the West for pro-Assad policies—including cutting off aid to the opposition and whitewashing the regime’s brutality.
Fueling the controversy are prior comments made by delegation members, including denunciations of the United States and Israel.
One of the delegation participants, Rev. Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian minister, has dismissed the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as “so-called terrorism,” praised Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and called Zionism an “imperialist expansionist racist ideology,” NOW News Lebanon’s Michael Weiss reported on Thursday.
Jarjour denounced the United States for “waging a campaign of terror in the world to address the so-called terrorism that reached it” during a 2003 speech at the Imam Khomeini Centre for Culture in Beirut.
Another participant in the delegation, Syrian Orthodox Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak, reportedly said last month on a Lebanese news show that the establishment of Israel “is contrary to all human rights in the world.”
A third member, Bishop Armash Nalbandian, the Primate of the Armenian Church of Damascus, has also reportedly given anti-Israel sermons, saying in 2009, “We stand with our people in Gaza in their suffering and their steadfastness in the face of the Israeli occupation, although the whole world is silent for its crimes, because Zionism revealed its true face, has returned to the gangs of Irgun and Haganah.”
The Westminster Institute said it was not previously aware of the controversial comments by delegation participants and was “surprised and disappointed” by them.
“We were actually quite upset when we saw the [quotes reported by NOW News Lebanon] as well,” said executive director Katharine Gorka. “It’s a very, very touchy subject for us because we’re very supportive of Israel.”
The delegation was there solely to discuss the problem Christian communities face in Syria, Gorka said.
"These individuals were here to highlight the catastrophic plight of the ancient Christian communities in Syria and the influx of foreign fighters into Syria linked to al Qaeda," she said. "As an institute committed to religious freedom and combating violent extremism we are of course against all violent fundamentalism, especially of the sort Hezbollah represents."
The delegation met on Wednesday with a bipartisan group of senators, including Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), Joe Manchin (D., W.V.), Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), John McCain (R., Ariz.), and Richard Blumenthal (R., Conn.).
An aide to McCain, a strong supporter of assisting the Syrian rebels, said the meeting “didn’t go well” and the senator believed the delegation was very supportive of Assad.
“He almost [walked out], but then he sat down and listened to what they had to say,” the aide said. “He strongly disagreed with what he viewed as their support for the Assad regime.”
Graham's office, which hosted the meeting, did not respond to request for comment.
The group also met with Reps. Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.), Louie Gohmert (R., Texas), and Frank Wolf (R., Va.), as well as State Department officials and representatives of the U.S. Institute for Peace, Time reported on Thursday.
Delegation participants also spoke at the Heritage Foundation, an influential conservative think tank in Washington.
Syrian Christians for Democracy, a Washington-based group that supports the Syrian rebels, said the delegation neglected to criticize Assad during its trip while emphasizing the extremist elements of the opposition.
“While painting the Assad regime as a utopia for Christians, the bishops failed to mention that same government assisted radical Islamists in Iraq, groups such as al Qaeda to kill Americans and Hezbollah to jail and kill Christians in Syria and Lebanon,” the group said.
Religious representatives from Syria have been accused of acting as mouthpieces for the Assad regime in the past. One prominent example is Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a Lebanese-born, Melkite Catholic nun who argues the chemical weapons attack carried out by Assad’s forces last August was actually staged by the rebels.
“It's a regime propaganda effort, and all of these figures, be it the nun Agnes or this delegation, are simply functionaries employed in that effort,” said Tony Badran, a Middle East expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who was born and raised in Lebanon.
“Some may work directly as assets for the regime, others are useful idiots, and others are just there because that's what the rules of the game are.”
While acknowledging that the delegation members were “not openly critical” of the Assad regime, Gorka said they maintained a neutral stance during the visit and “they really never came out and defended Assad.”
“To be also 100-percent clear we have absolutely no affiliation with the Assad regime, we are a totally independent think tank, this was never intended as a defense of Assad,” Gorka said.
She also said she did not believe any of the bishops had official ties to the regime.
“They’re seeing their people be killed and they just want to see an end to the fighting,” Gorka added.