‘Genocide is happening against Christians today. What is the world doing? History and God will judge us on what we do or don’t do.”
Timothy Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and associate professor of the Practice of Religion and Global Politics in the Government Department at Georgetown University, raised the rallying cry during a panel at the Religious Freedom Summit cosponsored by the Catholic University of America’s School of Law, Baylor University, and the Berkley Center at Georgetown. The summit was in many ways a curtain-raiser for Pope Francis’s trip to the United States this week, as Pope Francis has urged action and denounced silence.
The week before, In Defense of Christians hosted the Syriac Catholic patriarch of Antioch in Washington, D.C., during a day of advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians from Iraq and Syria. His Beatitude Ignatius Yousseff III Younan said that his people are devastated and feel abandoned by the West, and urged action. Step one — in addition to the groups like Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, who are providing support for those Christians who are there and who have had to flee — is to call what is happening to the Christians there a genocide, something Pope Francis has called it. In the House of Representatives, Republican Jeff Fortenberry and Democrat Anna Eshoo have introduced a resolution to do just that. Andrew Doran, executive director at In Defense of Christians, talks about the importance of that word and why Congress should pass the resolution sooner rather than later. — KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is using the word “genocide” to describe what is happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria so important?
Genocide should trigger action by the international community, but absent American leadership, nothing will be done.
Andrew Doran: Designating atrocities as “genocide” carries with it two moral and legal duties. The first is to end the atrocities using whatever means are necessary, including military force. The second is legal: to arrest, prosecute, and punish those who are committing these heinous crimes — and those who support the them. The United States is a signatory the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Ideally, America and its allies in the international community would demonstrate the will to build coalitions to end the conflicts in Iraq and Syria — the kind of determination that led to the Dayton Accords, which ended the ethno-religious violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Many will recall the reluctance of the United State and the international community to intervene in Rwanda in 1994. Hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved, but the Clinton administration instead quibbled over whether genocide was technically underway. Genocide should, in theory, trigger action by the international community, but the truth is that, absent American leadership, nothing will be done.
Lopez: Why should Congress act?
Doran: Congress represents the American people. Americans are weary of conflict in the Middle East and are loathe to get too deeply involved in other parts of the world such as Nigeria and Egypt. However, America’s intervention in Iraq created the conditions that made the country an even more dangerous place for Christians, Yazidis, and other groups than it was under Saddam. We have meddled to no rational purpose in Syria. We have no policy to counter ISIS and refuse to acknowledge, much less to understand, the extremist ideology that drives its atrocities. Our government seems either unwilling or unable to understand that the current boundaries of the Middle East were drawn by the British and French in the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916. (And, to be perfectly frank, most of the Republican candidates are embarrassingly unlettered on the Middle East.) I don’t share the optimism of those who believe that the Iraqi military has the capacity or the will to defeat ISIL, Al Qaeda, or affiliated terrorist organizations.
Many people are asking what they can do to help. If their representatives haven’t signed on to Congressman Fortenberry’s resolution, they should feel free to call and ask what their member of Congress is doing that’s more important.
Lopez: Why would it be good for at least the House to act before the pope speaks to Congress Thursday?
Doran: This pope has the world’s attention, and this is a distinct opportunity to place this issue at the forefront of the public consciousness. Middle East Christians are too often overlooked, particularly in America, because they are still getting their footing inside the Beltway and in the media. But the papal visit, especially the joint session and U.N. speeches, may be an opportunity to take action.
Lopez: What can and should the U.N. do?
Doran: The U.N.’s stated purpose is to organize the international community to respond to conflict and humanitarian catastrophes, such as genocide. Its procedures require that it be asked to intervene by a member state. Iraq has already done so. The United States and other countries should do so as well. If the crimes against humanity in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, which include countless Sunni and Shia Arab victims, are not sufficient to prompt the U.S. and other countries to ask the U.N. to intervene, then one has to wonder if their commitment to human rights stops when the going gets tough.
Lopez: Does any of this really have teeth? Or will it just make us feel better?
Doran: Professor Bob Destro, who has been running point on the genocide research, often notes that politics is the art of coalition-building. If we can build a coalition that demands action “with teeth,” we will get one. We already have legislation that empowers the government bodies to pursue groups like ISIL and Boko Haram and their supporters, but we have yet to use them. Once we do, most Americans will be shocked at the opposition that will come from America’s so-called allies in the Gulf.
Lopez: What are the tough questions that need to be asked of the White House?
There are some significant cultural differences, but I think Middle East Christians will find allies among American Christians.
Doran: Here are some specific questions:
What is the administration’s comprehensive plan for dealing with ISIS, al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, and other extremist religious groups?
Is the United States prepared to sanction banks and foreign governments that harbor, support, or process money used to support these groups?
Is the United States prepared to hold its allies (such as the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia) responsible for the ideological and financial support their nationals and clerics provide to these extremist groups?
America has spent the last several decades transferring trillions of dollars in wealth from North America to the Middle East, specifically to the rigidly fundamentalist — and now spectacularly wealthy — states of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait. This transferred wealth has, in turn, found its way into the hands of terrorists. Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told Josh Rogan last year: “Everybody knows the money is going through Kuwait and that it’s coming from the Arab Gulf. . . . Kuwait’s banking system and its money changers have long been a huge problem because they are a major conduit for money to extremist groups in Syria and now Iraq.” The Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes should be freezing the wealth of these individuals, but our priorities have apparently been elsewhere. If September 11, 2001 couldn’t get the attention of our government, why would the genocide of Christians and Yazidis? The last two decades of terrorism and genocide has been funded by a relative handful of wealthy ideological extremists. Of course, the Gulf States throw a lot of money around in Washington and they have a lot of oil, so don’t expect anything to change soon. Until this money either dries up or is exposed to serious public scrutiny, don’t expect the U.S. government to pursue the funding sources of extremism. It’s too messy for the Gulf States and for the U.S. government.
Lopez: What was your main takeaway from last week’s conference? Whose is the voice you wish every policy maker and every American could hear?
Doran: The Christians of the Middle East need a unified lobbying voice in Washington to advocate, quite simply, for their own survival. Middle East Christian diaspora are increasingly organized and are demanding to be heard. More than two dozen members of Congress spoke to them, and the Christians themselves went to upwards of 300 offices asking them to support the genocide resolution. This is the purpose of In Defense of Christians, to be a unified voice for Middle East Christians, the only such voice in Washington.
Lopez: Do you find anything encouraging about the situation for Christians in that part of the world?
Doran: The very best thing that Middle East Christians can do is to build bridges with American Christians. They should be reaching out to local Protestant, Catholic, and Evangelical leaders: Tell them who they are, ask for their help. There are some significant cultural differences, but I think Middle East Christians will find allies among American Christians. They should be inviting American Christians to join them on site visits to see the rich cultural heritage of Christians in the Middle East. In the monasteries of the Egyptian deserts and the mountains of Lebanon, in Syria and Iraq, they will find a Christianity that has struggled to survive since the first century. I’ve spoken to many American Christians whose eyes have been opened to this heritage on such visits. There are millions of Christians in the region and their survival is worth fighting to save.