By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent evangelical leaders have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to pull American military forces out of Syria, saying he was endangering tens of thousands of Christians in the Muslim-dominated region.
But the response was more muted at an annual conference of religious conservatives on Friday in Washington, where some Christian activists were concerned about the Syria move but willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
“I would have done things differently, but I don’t have all the information that went into the decision,” Jeffrey Morgan, co-founder of a pro-family group called Americans Against No-Fault Divorce, said at the Values Voter Summit.
“I have a hard time when we abandon friends who have stuck their necks out for us,” he said of the Kurds, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who are now under attack from Turkey in Syria. “But would I abandon the president over Syria? No way.”
William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a group that runs programs to assist Christians in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, said he did not believe Kurds were protective of Christians in the region, but the withdrawal had made the area unstable.
“Any time you create a situation where bullets and bombs are flying, you are going to endanger people on the ground,” he said.
Evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters through years of scandal and controversy, and the criticism from influential leaders has been a rare crack in their overwhelming support for the president as he heads into a congressional impeachment battle and a tough 2020 re-election fight.
Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said after Trump announced the withdrawal that he was “in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven.”
Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked people to pray for Trump to reconsider, saying “thousands of lives hang in the balance.”
Trump won 81% of the vote from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, which came just weeks after a decade-old Access Hollywood video surfaced showing him bragging about kissing and grabbing women because “when you are a star, they let you do it.”
Evangelicals have stuck with Trump since, through sex scandals like his alleged payments to hush up an affair with a porn star, and controversies like the investigation into Russian election meddling. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-September, 70% of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance.
At the conference, which will conclude with a speech by Trump on Saturday night, the president drew repeated cheers for appointing conservative, anti-abortion judges, protecting religious liberties and battling liberals.
Speakers condemned the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
“I think it’s time we send Adam Schiff home instead of the president of the United States,” conservative Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows told the cheering crowd, making a reference to one of the Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry.
Attendees said Trump was a sympathetic leader besieged by Democrats determined to bring him down.
“He’s not a perfect man, but he represents more of my moral values than those who seem to hate him,” said Tim Chafins, a healthcare worker in Akron, Ohio. “What I see happening in Washington has nothing to do with Ukraine, Russia or China. It’s all politics.”
Tim Throckmorton, Midwest director of ministry for the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the conference, said that knowing Trump’s heart, “I’m sure he feels he is doing the right thing in Syria.”
“I hope the Christians in Syria are safe,” he added.
(Editing by Bill Berkrot)