US Vows to Help Mideast Christians
Lobbyists for Christians in the Middle East say that they’re used to getting a cold shoulder from Washington. But Vice President Mike Pence recently told those gathered in Washington for the In Defense of Christians (IDC) summit that things were changing.
Pence contrasted the Trump administration’s attitude from President Obama’s by using the term “radical Islamic terrorism” to describe those attacking Christians. Protecting Middle East Christians will be a priority for the Trump administration, Pence said.
Pence said that, “We will not rest until we hunt down ISIS and destroy it at its source, so that it can no longer threaten our people or anyone who calls the Middle East home.”
Pence said that the US would not ignore the pleas of genocide victims, promising that USAID would take direct charge of providing aid to Christians and other religious minorities.
The IDC lobbied for years to get USAID to distribute aid instead of the UN, which it and other groups believe has performed poorly. Members of Congress from both parties likewise pledged overarching support for Mideast Christians at Capitol Hill breakfast and lunch sessions.
The events were attended by IDC supporters from across the country, and Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai, the head of Lebanon’s influential Maronite Catholic Church.
The collapse of the ISIS caliphate isn’t the end of the peril that Christians face; they continue to be persecuted in places like Egypt, and across Africa. ISIS is also morphing back into a guerilla group in Iraq and Syria, which poses a continuing threat to Christians. Additionally, the threat of Iran looms large.
Throughout the IDC conference, speakers complained about the West’s indifference to the plight of Christian minorities in the Middle East.
In some cases, attitudes about gay rights or past evils done in the name of Christianity by Western groups have caused many American Christians to deem Mideast Christians unworthy of protection, said Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
“They conceive of Christians as only the persecutors, never the persecuted; they want to apologize for the Crusades or imperialism,” Tooley said. “Even if they acknowledge there are persecuted Christians around the world, they surmise that Christianity is too compromised to merit sympathy, much less advocacy.”
Western inaction has contributed to the displacement of half of Iraq’s pre-war Christian population. In 2003, 1.5 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today, that number is just more than 200,000. Persecution of Copts in Egypt by ISIS and Islamic extremism in broader Egyptian society also have triggered an exodus, which Coptic Orphans co-founder Nermien Riad said could lead to millions of Copts leaving Egypt over the next 50 years.
Previous efforts to get the West to take up the cause of Mideast Christians have “fallen on deaf ears,” Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai said.
“People don’t give enough value to Christians in the Middle East,” he said.
His colleague, Patriarch John X, head of the Damascus-based Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, called on the US to push for peace in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq — and throughout the rest of the region.
“Christians in the Middle East are going to stay there because we were born there as God wished, and in the end, we will die there,” John X said, recalling the 2013 jihadist kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Aleppo, one of whom was his brother.
Speakers at the event said that US policymakers sometimes don’t understand how helping Christians across the Middle East, from Egypt to Iraq, is vital to US national interests.
“It is clear that the policy is set in Ankara and not in Washington,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America.
Hamparian was among those physically attacked by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bodyguards in May, while they peacefully protested outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington.
Hamparian said that America’s NATO commitments with Turkey were important to US policymakers, but that “there should also be an accountability element.”
Christians in the Middle East also help to moderate the area, according to many IDC activists.
“A region without Christians is more extreme and dangerous,” Rai said.
Lebanon, where Christians, Sunnis, Shias and Druze have lived together in relative harmony since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, was presented as an example for the rest of the Middle East. Speakers expressed alarm at the threat to the country’s delicate religious balance that they believe is posed by the 1.5 million mostly Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees now living in Lebanon.
Many of Rai’s generation have bitter memories of Lebanon’s civil war, which they say was triggered by half a million Palestinians moving into Lebanon in the 1960s and 70s. They worry that the Syrian refugees will put an incredible economic strain on Lebanon’s scarce resources — which they fear could reignite the conflict.
Iran also remains an unpredictable wild card for Christians from Lebanon to Iraq, warned Alberto Fernandez, who served as coordinator for strategic counterterrorism communications at the State Department in the Obama administration. If Hezbollah attacks Israel at the request of Iran, the resulting disaster would send the region “to hell,” according to Fernandez.
In Iraq, recently-liberated Christians also face threats from Iranian-controlled militias. Hundreds of Christians living in the northern Iraqi village of Tel Skuf were driven out after being by shelled by the militia on on Tuesday, said Loay Mikael, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council. Tel Skuf was rebuilt after ISIS left with help from the Hungarian government.