September 2, 2016

President’s Notes The End of Christianity in the Middle East?

For this column, I would like to step back from my usual focus on agricultural policy and touch on a subject of profound personal significance. Given my Lebanese heritage and deep involvement in the Orthodox Church, I am particularly sensitive to the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

This recent story really got to me. In late July, two ISIS-inspired assailants, armed with knives, entered a Catholic Church outside Rouen, France, and slit the throat of an elderly priest. To top it off, the attackers had the nerve to film this act of violence, according to a nun who was fortunate to escape.

I apologize for the gruesome detail, but it is an important element of the story as it illustrates the growing threat of radical Islamic extremists who view Christians as infidels and will not rest until the entire world—not just the Middle East—is run according to Sharia law.

But the targeted assassination of this priest wasn’t the first (or boldest) ISIS attack on Christians. In February of last year, 21 Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya. Since then, Christians have been mercilessly murdered across the Middle East, including in Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan. Last year alone, Boko Haram (an ISIS affiliate) attacked 200 churches and killed more than 4,000 Christians in Nigeria.

Effectively, ISIS has declared war on Christianity, a fact the U.S. government only recently—and reluctantly—acknowledged. After substantial public pressure, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally called the ISIS campaign against Christians by its proper name: “genocide.”

However, the persecution of Christians in the Middle East is not a new phenomenon, although its pace has accelerated significantly since the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011. Since the beginning of the last century, the Christian population, as a percentage of the total Middle Eastern population, has been reduced by more than half.

According to the Pew Research Center, Christians make up just 4 percent of the total Middle Eastern population, a number that is expected to drop even lower over the next several decades. In Iran and Turkey, they are all but gone.

Traditionally amiable places for Christians, like Syria and Egypt, have become increasingly hostile. Nearly 500,000 Syrian Christians—roughly half of the Christian population in Syria—have been displaced since the country’s civil war began in early 2011. Even greater numbers of Christians have been driven from Egypt over the past 30 years, and the attacks on their churches have become more frequent and brazen over the past few years.

In Iraq, two out of three Christians—one million people—have fled their homes since the U.S. invasion in 2003. For all of his moral shortcomings, including unspeakable crimes against his own people, Saddam Hussein provided for relative religious tolerance under his regime. The sectarian violence that has erupted between Sunnis and Shias since his ouster has jeopardized the presence of Christianity in Iraq. ISIS may wipe it out completely.

Given our relative isolation from the events in the Middle East, why is the existence of Christianity in this region so important? The short answer: Because it represents the preservation of a fundamental human right, namely to practice religion free from suppression. The First Amendment codifies this basic principle into our Constitution. In fact, promoting religious freedom is a core objective of U.S. foreign policy. Did you know the U.S. Department of State has an entire Office of International Religious Freedom devoted to this mission?

More esoterically, the Middle East is the cradle of Christianity (We were first called Christians in Antioch, Syria), home to the earliest churches and many of the sites, structures and artifacts that are foundational to the Christian faith. As ISIS seizes control of various cities in Iraq and Syria, they intentionally target these holy icons for destruction. In late 2014, for example, St. Elijah’s Monastery in Mosul—the oldest Christian monastery in Iraq—was leveled by ISIS. To lose these memorials to Christianity is to tear away at the very fabric of the religion itself.

What is being done to protect Christians and preserve Christianity in the Middle East? A lot…and not nearly enough. Many non-governmental organizations, such as In Defense of Christians, are working to raise global awareness of the plight of religious minorities in this region. Through their efforts, we are beginning to see heightened global pressure to engage on the issue.

Some of our own politicians, like California Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, clearly get it. In fact, her parents fled anti-Christian violence in this part of the world. Eshoo, co-founder and co-chair of the Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East, and others are working diligently to raise both awareness and funding to support displaced Christians.

However, Congressional priorities remain backwards. Since 2013, the United States has given in the neighborhood of $500 million in humanitarian aid to Christians in the Middle East, which may sound substantial until you hear the federal government spends that much every year subsidizing magazine postage!

Our government must be willing to leverage the full weight of its diplomatic and, if necessary, military clout to advance religious security in this region. The United States has many tools at its disposal, including the ability to coordinate an international response to human rights violations. Collectively, a combination of carrot and stick may be appropriate to facilitate better behavior from the worst actors in the region.

We know ISIS isn’t going away any time soon. Neither will the steady march of Islamic fundamentalism. Which is why our response to the present crisis is so critical to the fate of Christianity, not only in the Middle East, but throughout the West, as well. Think about how scary the following phrase is: “The end of Christianity in the Middle East.” Think about the spiritual and geopolitical ramifications if that reality were to actually occur.

As I close this column, I am reminded of the words of Martin Niemoller, the German anti-Nazi pastor who famously spoke out against Adolf Hitler: “…Then they came for Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

We are fully aware of the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Our response must be different than the Allied Powers leading up to World War II. A policy of appeasement (or willful neglect) will not be acceptable. We cannot stand idly by, we must be their voice. If we fail to act now, history and our Lord will judge us harshly. That is not a burden I am willing to bear.