NYC Bar Association Event on Religious Minorities in the Middle East

The New York City Bar Association sponsored an interesting panel this week on “Religious and Ethnic Minorities in the Middle East.”  The panel discussed the current plight of minority groups like Copts, Kurds, Baha’is, and Jews.  Ashraf Ramelah, Founder and President of the Human Rights organization “Voice of the Copts,” began by discussing the Coptic community in Egypt.  Ramelah highlighted recent attacks on the Copts and expressed concern for their future during this period of transition.  He stressed the importance of fair and unbiased news regarding Copts, something he said has been lacking in Egypt for some time.

Anthony Vance, Director of U.S. Baha’i Office of External Affairs for the National Spiritual Assembly, highlighted the dangers faced by the Baha’i community in Iran.  Vance insisted that much of the Iranian population has been desensitized by media propaganda and the lack of a free press.  He discussed ways that the United States, and the international community as a whole, could help Baha’is and other oppressed minorities in the Middle East, the most important being use of the media and internet to stop the spread of misinformation.

Abe Greenwald, Senior Editor of Commentary, discussed the Kurdish population in Iraq.  He explained that although the overwhelming majority of Kurds are Muslim, there are Christian and Jewish Kurds as well.  He spoke of Iraq’s long history of exploiting Kurds.  Although the Kurdish community is relatively safe now, they face serious threats once the American military leaves Iraq.

David Carroll, Advisor to the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations, wondered what the Arab Spring will mean for minority communities in the Middle East.  With the bombing of churches in Egypt, the Turkish army watching Christian communities very closely, and Iranian minorities having to deal with constant discrimination, serious concerns exist for the future.  Carroll did mention, though, that in Cyprus, Jordan, and Israel, Christian communities are doing fairly well.  Specifically, he noted that Israel’s “Hebrew Catholics” are one of the only Christian populations experiencing growth in the Middle East.

Irwin Cotler, a Canadian MP and former Attorney General and Justice Minister, discussed the positive steps the Canadian Parliament is taking with regard to minority oppression in the Middle East.  He stated that the Parliament’s unanimous adoption of a recent report on minorities in Iran led the government to adopt some recommendations to help stop discrimination against Baha’is.  Additionally, the Parliament established inter-parliamentary groups for human rights.  Cotler recognized the need to focus on the potential nuclear weapons program in Iran, but said that shouldn’t stop the international community from recognizing human rights issues.

Professor Elizabeth Defeis of Seton Hall University School of Law began by discussing United Nations human rights declarations.  Although these declarations are important, she said, they are not legally binding.  The real issue is implementation. What we need, she argued, is diplomatic work and efforts from NGOs to eliminate human rights abuses.

Finally, Professor Malvina Halberstam of Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law expressed serious concern for the Jews in the Middle East.  In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, she pointed out, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known anti-Semitic text, is a best seller.  A real problem, she said, was the teaching of hatred to children.  For example, she said, the Palestinian Authority provides schoolbooks and children’s television shows that encourage violence against Jews.

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