Last week, Robert George and Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, published an important op-ed on the persecution of Mideast Christians. This topic receives far too little attention, for reasons I’ve explained, and George and Swett deserve praise for writing about it.
The situation is truly dire. For example, George and Swett discuss the plight of Egypt’s Copts, who celebrate Christmas today, as well as Christians in Iraq:
In Egypt, persecution against Coptic Christians, the region’s largest non-Muslim religious minority, numbering 8 million, has reached critical proportions. While Hosni Mubarak’s military-backed regime failed to punish attacks against Copts and other religious minorities, Mohammed Morsi’s election to the presidency in 2012 was followed by rhetoric leading to more violence before and since his ouster this July. Since mid-August, following a military crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters, Brotherhood sympathizers have assaulted more than 200 Christian religious structures, homes, and businesses.
In Iraq, violence against Christians rose after Saddam Hussein’s fall. Christians have endured increasing levels of rape, torture, and murder, driving many away. On Christmas Day, at least 37 people died in bombings in Christian areas, including a car bombing outside of a church. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has failed repeatedly to bring perpetrators to justice. Once home to about one million Christians, Iraq has half that number today.
The situation in Iraq, in particular, should embarrass the United States. America toppled Saddam Hussein and occupied Iraq for almost a decade. The result for Christians and some other religious minorities has been disaster. And security continues to deteriorate. Just last week, Fallujah fell to militants linked to Al Qaeda.
But I digress. At the end of their op-ed, George and Swett suggest some things that the US can do to help persecuted Mideast Christians now:
First, the United States must press governments to bring to justice those who assault religious minorities – not only Christians but Shi’a Muslims in Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Muslims and Baha’is in Iran, and Shi’a and Ahmadis in Pakistan.
Second, Washington must urge these governments to cease punishing the innocent. In countries like Egypt and Pakistan, Christians and others face not only violence from extremists who rarely are imprisoned for their misdeeds, but prison at the hands of these same governments, thanks to blasphemy laws which violate freedom of expression as well as religion.
Third, the United States must firmly support religious freedom as an antidote to religious extremism in these countries. By supporting a robust marketplace of beliefs and ideas, religious freedom enables more tolerant beliefs to compete in the struggle for hearts and minds.
Here I’d like to suggest a couple of friendly amendments. First, it’s not clear whether George and Swett are suggesting public action by the US. Public pressure could do more harm than good, in my view. Given the pathologies of the Mideast, overt advocacy on the part of religious minorities could expose them to a backlash. Christians are already seen, unfairly, as intruders and Western agents. Moreover, popular opinion in America would not support serious interventions on behalf of Mideast Christians. Public statements of support, without the will to back them up with concrete actions, would only raise expectations unfairly. This sort of thing has occurred to Mideast Christians many times in the past.
So pressure by the US should be private. Even private pressure could backfire, of course, especially if regional governments decide to make Christians scapegoats. But private pressure is less likely than public admonishment to cause greater problems for already vulnerable people.
Second, in addition to trying to improve the status of Christians in the region, the US and other Western countries should fast-track asylum applications from Copts and other Mideast Christians, to provide a haven for those who wish to leave the region. This is a very imperfect solution, of course, as it would accelerate the depopulation of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. But leaving these Christians to their fate isn’t a good option, either.