Perched on a hard orange seat high above the dirt floor of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center, waiting for the Harrisburg Trump rally to start, Pastor Joseph Moussa told me Donald Trump gives him hope, in part, because he reminds him of Assad.
Yes, that Assad—Bashar al-Assad—the one whose army is accused of killing upwards of a quarter-million Syrians. In some important ways, Moussa said, Trump and Assad sound similar. And he likes it.
Besides appreciating Trump’s plainspokenness and apparent invulnerability to pressure from lobbyists, Moussa and other Syrian-American Christians living in Pennsylvania like Trump for a unique reason: They think he will do the least to undermine Assad—and, by extension, the most to protect their fellow Christians back in Syria.
“Mr. Trump, he is the only candidate that ever said, ‘I am an evangelical and I am proud of it, and I am gonna protect the Christians,’” he said.
Like any other ethnic group, Pennsylvania’s Syrian-American community isn’t a monolith. And describing it in sweeping terms is as foolish as it is uninformative. But conversations with numerous Syrian-American leaders in the Keystone State indicate that Trump may find many devoted supporters among their numbers. Many of these Christians fervently back Bashar al-Assad, as they feel he treats Syria’s Christians fairly and is their best protection against spreading Islamist extremism in the region. So they like Trump, as they feel he’s their best hope for limiting Western intervention on behalf of the rebels seeking to take down Assad. To an extent, they see Trump and Assad as two of a kind when it comes to protecting the region’s Christians.
Christians in Syria have long called for the U.S. government to oppose anti-Assad efforts. Leading Syrian Christians came to Washington in January 2014 to lobby in Assad’s defense, as Time magazine detailed, arguing that he protected their community from radicalized Islamists. They didn’t quite push for America to aid Assad, but rather argued against any U.S. support for rebels.
At the time, some powerful American Christian leaders backed them up. Tony Perkins, who heads the socially conservative Family Research Council, argued against U.S. military intervention back in September 2013, saying it would endanger Syria’s Christians. The National Journal reported that Rev. Michael Neuroth of the United Church of Christ and Gradye Parsons, then the highest elected officer of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., also shared Perkins’s concerns.
The vast majority of the Syrian civil war’s victims are Muslims, including countless innocent civilians and children. But Christians there also face great peril. Anti-Assad fighters allied with al Qaeda and the Islamic State have bombed churches and driven Christians from their homes. Assad, in contrast, gave Christians privileged treatment and even made one his ambassador to France, as PBS has detailed.
Joseph Moussa, who leads Arab Christian Evangelical churches in York and Harrisburg, told me his first cousin was recently found dead by his relatives in Syria. ISIS fighters had kidnapped him, along with co-workers. They let the Sunni Muslims they kidnapped survive, Moussa said, but they killed the Alawites and Christians—his cousin among them. He told me his family back in Damascus buried his cousin on the same day we talked before the Trump rally.
For Moussa, Trump’s campaign promise to protect Christians sounds very personal. Other candidates talk about their faith, Moussa said. But only Trump promises to actively protect Christians—just like Assad.
Many Christians in Syria fear that the weaker Assad becomes, the worse things will be for them. And many Syrian-Americans in Pennsylvania share that fear. They’ve protested U.S. intervention with signs that read “PEACE LOVE DIGNITY SYRIA.”
Our site once dubbed Allentown “Assadville, USA.” And Assadville loves Trump.
“The majority of them are [pro] Trump,” said Ayoub Jarrouj, a Syrian-American Christian who heads the Allentown-based Syrian Arab American Charity and who backs Hillary Clinton.
To some Syrian evangelicals, even if they’re not actively backing Trump, he’s seen as a better choice than the former secretary of state. Anthony Sabbagh, who pastors the St. George Orthodox Church in Allentown, said he himself supports Bernie Sanders, as do many in his congregation. They see Sanders and Trump as being equally acceptable on foreign policy questions, Sabbagh said. And if it’s Trump vs. Clinton in November, he added, he will definitely vote Trump. That’s because he believes Trump will limit U.S. involvement in Syria.
“I think they do not want Syria to progress—they want to bring it down,” he said of the Obama administration’s view of the nation. “They brought Iraq down. They did in Vietnam. Tell me a country that America went to they didn’t leave it in shambles.”
Sabbagh said he hopes Assad stays in power—and he believes a President Trump would keep him there.
“Leave us alone, we will care for ourselves,” he said of the country. “We would like [Assad] to stay because for Christians, he is our protection.”
Ghias Moussa, a Christian who immigrated from Syria and who heads the New Jersey and New York chapters of the Syrian American Forum (and is a relative of Joseph Moussa), also backs both Trump and Assad. He lives in New Jersey and has close ties to Pennsylvania’s Syrian-American community—and he said the Syrian-Americans he interacts with share his views.
“You can see that day by day the whole Syrian community is moving towards Mr. Trump,” he said. “He’s been gathering big support. We are hoping that Trump is going to have a big win in Pennsylvania because of the Syrian community. All of them are galvanized around what Trump is saying.”
Given Trump’s commanding lead in the RealClearPolitics average, he may not need the Syrian-American vote in the April 26 Republican primary there. Still, they have more clout there than in most other states; Boston.com found that the Keystone State has the third-highest number of Syrian-Americans per capita of any state. And City-Data.com reports that the Allentown suburb of Hokendauqua (pop. 3,378) has the highest percentage of Syrian-born residents of any American town or city with a population of more than 500 people. Rep. Charlie Dent, who represents much of the Lehigh Valley (and has endorsed John Kasich), estimates that his district has one of the highest—if not the highest—concentrations of Syrian-Americans in the country. He noted that they’re predominantly Christian.
“When a lot of Americans hear discussions about Syria, they maybe have a perception of ISIS and radical islamists, when in fact, the Syrians in my community are Christian and secular and fiercely opposed to radical Islam,” Dent said.
“Many of my Syrian Christian constituents tend to be more sympathetic to the [Assad] regime,” added Dent, who called for Assad to step down in 2011. “And there have been pro-Assad rallies in my district over the last few years.”
From 2014 to 2015, about 112 Syrian refugees moved to Pennsylvania, according to PennLive.com. While some Syrian Christians welcomed the refugees—who are predominantly Muslim—others suggested terrorists could have infiltrated their ranks.
Jarrouj’s group worked to help some refugee families adjust to life in Pennsylvania.
“Even though there are a lot of Christian that hate them, I want them to know that a lot of Christians love them, that we don’t look at them as Muslim—we look at them as Syrian, and they are welcome,” he said.
Sabbagh also called for members of his flock to welcome the refugees, and for the state to accept more of them.
“You have to take chances in life, and this is one of the chances you take,” he said last November.
But other Christians urge caution. Joseph Moussa told The Daily Beast that he worries refugees coming here could have terrorist sympathizers in their midst. And he said he appreciates that Trump shares that concern.
“I agree and I support Mr. Trump [a] hundred percent,” he said, of the candidate’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. “America always has opened its doors for people that are hurt, but we’re not working with people that are hurt only—we’re working with people that are militant, and they really want to hurt us. We need to be wise how we vet these people, and to make sure we got the right people inside America.”
He said that a “hundred percent” of the Arab Christians he preaches to share that view.
“I believe he’s a person that knows that to have someone like Assad to fight terrorism is more important than bringing down Assad and having the country turn to be a terrorist country in the hands of the militants,” he said.
One Syrian-American leader in Pennsylvania who didn’t want to discuss the matter on the record said the antipathy between Muslims and Christians in Syria still exists in some corners here in the United States. So some Syrian-American Christians wouldn’t be troubled whatsoever by Trump’s call for a moratorium on Muslim immigration.
Besides appreciating Trump’s non-interventionist foreign policy views, Syrian-American Christians said they believe Trump will be neutral on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (many also back Sanders because they believe he would handle it similarly).
“I think the man is reasonable and open-minded,” Sabbagh said, “and I think the Palestinians are a people like any other people and they have rights also like any other people.”
Sabbagh added that this makes for a sharp contrast between Trump and Cruz.
“He doesn’t care for the Palestinians,” Sabbagh said of Cruz. “He doesn’t care but for only one thing: himself. And also he puts his cards on the table: He is for Israel 100 percent. Whatever Israel dictates to him, that is what he’s going to do.”
Though evangelical Christians in the United States tend to be adamantly pro-Israel, their fellow Christians in the Middle East are much more conflicted. Ross Douthat wrote that Arab Christian feelings on Israel “range from the complicated to the hostile.” It’s a long story, but Christians from Syria feel quite differently about Israel than Christians from Alabama do.
And many of those Arab Christians are openly hostile to Cruz. In 2014, the Texan made headlines—some fawning and others irate—when he addressed a group of Middle Eastern Christians in Washington, D.C. The senator drew boos by telling attendees that Israel was their best ally and that he would not support them if they didn’t “stand with Israel.” Since then, the perception that Cruz cares more for Israel than for Arab Christians has persisted among American Christians with roots in the Middle East.
“They were our patriarchs visiting the capital,” said Sabbagh. “He insulted everybody, he insulted them without any respect. That, we never forgot either, that you keep in mind. Because he has no wisdom whatsoever, even in talking to his guests in his own home the way he did it, I mean, that’s disgraceful as a human being.
“No one could stand Cruz,” he added. “I don’t think he will have one vote from us, not even one.”
Joseph Moussa said Cruz shouldn’t have been surprised by the frigid reception.
“When you only stand on one side, period, justify that side, regardless of what wrong that side has done, they’re going to boo him,” he said. “Thousands of Christian families in Israel or in other countries, they have been hurt by the policy and the politics of the United States. We need to stand with Israel, but we need also not to allow Israel to be aggressive and taking the right of the innocent people.”
“The first word he tells us is, the Israelis are better than you,” said Ghias Moussa. “And we tell him, we’re not talking about the Israelis. We’re Americans. We want you to be a good conservative president or senator in America.”
These Syrian Christians think Trump would much better fit the bill. Moussa said that when Arab Christians ask him who to back, he’s unequivocal.
“When they ask me—because many of them are new immigrants and they don’t know much the politics in America, so they come to the pastors and take the pastor’s opinion—I usually tell them that Mr. Trump is a person that we believe is gonna bring back America to be a great nation and is going to deal with the issues of the world in general,” he said.
For Moussa, voting Trump is easy.
“The only hope, I think, for us is to see Trump go to the White House,” he said. “And honestly, I’m not gonna vote if it’s not gonna be for him.”