The Real War on Christianity
In the Middle East, the Islamic State is crucifying Christians and demolishing ancient churches. Why is this being met with silence from the halls of Congress to Sunday sermons?
Last August, President Barack Obama signed off on legislation creating a special envoy charged with aiding the ancient Christian communities and other beleaguered religious minorities being targeted by the Islamic State.
The bill was a modest one — the new position was given a budget of just $1 million — and the White House quietly announced the signing in a late-afternoon press release that lumped it in with an array of other low-profile legislation. Neither Obama nor any prominent lawmakers made any explicit public reference to the bill.
Seven months later, the position remains unfilled — a small but concrete example of Washington’s passivity in the face of an ongoing wave of atrocities against the Assyrian, Chaldean, and other Christian communities of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has razed centuries-old churches and monasteries, beheaded and crucified Christians, and mounted a concerted campaign to drive Christians out of cities and towns they’ve lived in for thousands of years. The Iraqi city of Mosul had a Christian population of 35,000 when U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003; today, with the city in the hands of the Islamic State, the vast majority of them have fled.
Every holiday season, politicians in America take to the airwaves to rail against a so-called “war on Christmas” or “war on Easter,” pointing to things like major retailers wishing shoppers generic “happy holidays.” But on the subject of the Middle East, where an actual war on Christians is in full swing, those same voices are silent. A push to use American aircraft to shield the areas of Iraq where Christians have fled has gone nowhere. Legislation that would fast-track visa applications from Christians looking to leave for the United States never even came up for a vote. The White House, meanwhile, won’t say if or when it will fill the special envoy position.
“It’s been difficult to get the attention of the previous administration, or the current one, when it comes to the urgent need to act,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat who drafted the visa legislation. “The classic definition of genocide is the complete annihilation of a group of people. The Islamic State is well on its way. It keeps me up at night.”
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Last summer, an unusual symbol began replacing the avatars used on the Facebook and Twitter pages of thousands of individual Christians from Lebanon, Britain, the United States, and numerous other countries. It was the Arabic letter nun, written in gold against a black background, and it was there for a reason.
When the Islamic State conquered Mosul in June 2014, the militants scrawled the letter on the homes of the city’s Christians. It was the first letter of the word “nasrani,” an Arabic term for Christians that is often used as a slur. The Islamic State then delivered an ultimatum: All Christians in the city must either convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. Most of the city’s remaining 3,000 Christians fled their homes, marking what could be the end of the city’s centuries-old Christian community.
Small numbers of Christians around the world turned to social media to try to call attention to the Islamic State’s crackdown and turn the word from a symbol of violent extremism into a symbol of solidarity. The Twitter hashtag #WeAreN began to trend globally, and the letter nun became the avatar of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users.
It was a watershed moment for some American Christians, who were only dimly aware — if they were aware at all — of the attacks being committed against Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq and Syria. Christian Solidarity International, a nonprofit that provides support for victims of religious persecution, issued a “genocide warning” for religious minorities in the Middle East as early as 2011, but few American Christians paid any attention. The nun symbol finally brought an otherwise distant conflict home to many in America, creating a “sense of identification with Christians in the Middle East,” said Timothy Morgan, senior editor for global journalism at Christianity Today, a Christian magazine that also replaced its own Twitter avatar with the Arabic letter.
“American churchgoers are always scratching their heads, wondering, ‘Who are these Christians? We don’t really know anything about them,’” Morgan said. “The ‘N’ campaign seemed to really grab people’s hearts.”
But while the campaign raised awareness on social media, it didn’t spur many American Christians to push Capitol Hill for emergency aid or visas for the beleaguered Iraqis. That’s due in part to the international nature of the issue. Many Christians and Christian organizations are politically active on domestic issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. But international issues are “more intimidating to people,” Faith McDonnell, the director of Religious Liberty Programs at the Washington-based Institute of Religion and Democracy, said in an interview. She added that many Christians and other Americans concerned about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians “don’t even know who is on the Foreign Relations Committee.”
Johnnie Moore, a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals and the author of Defying ISIS, a book being published this month that documents what the author calls a “Christian genocide” in the Middle East, said that he had noticed a “big change” among churchgoers’ awareness in the past few months, especially since the Islamic State’s videotaped beheading in February of 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya. “[Christians] want and expect the U.S. government to do more, and they are angry that it hasn’t,” Moore said.
Some Christian leaders are trying to change that. On Feb. 25, In Defense of Christians (IDC), a Washington-based advocacy organization, sponsored a “Day of Action,” calling on American Christians to contact the White House to press for the special envoy to be finally appointed and to contact their congressional representatives to ask that they join the Caucus for Religious Minorities in the Middle East, which had just 15 lawmakers as members. IDC co-founder and senior advisor Andrew Doran told FP that two new members — Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) — have joined the caucus since the Day of Action, with several others expected to follow suit in the weeks ahead.
Others are trying to use their ties to powerful Republicans to push for stronger action. Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the Southern Baptist Convention, told FP he has made it a priority to mention the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East to possible presidential candidates as the 2016 race begins to heat up. Moore has a large microphone: The Southern Baptist Convention has nearly 16 million members.
“It’s one of the first things I say when I sit down with them,” he said in an interview, noting that he had already communicated these concerns directly to potential 2016 presidential candidates Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. “Many of the candidates are increasingly engaged on these issues,” Moore said.
But political tensions between American evangelicals, who are typically outspoken supporters of Israel, and Middle East Christians, some of whom blame Israel for expropriating Arab lands, have at times prevented the groups from joining hands. At an IDC summit in September 2014, Cruz was booed off the stage after saying that “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”
The incident highlights the tricky political landscape that advocates for Christians in the Middle East must navigate. “There must be more options for Middle Eastern Christians than outspoken support for Israel and anti-Semitism,” Doran said in an interview that same month with the National Review. “The Middle East is complicated and nuanced, whether politicians want it that way or not.”
Other Christian leaders accuse the Obama administration of downplaying the crackdown on minorities in Iraq because of a perceived discomfort with the topic of religion. John Eibner, the CEO of Christian Solidarity International-USA, told FP that persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East, and especially Christians, has been difficult for Washington to directly address because it touches on a sensitive foreign-policy issue.
“The shared political interest of mainstream Republicans and Democrats is to win the hearts and the minds of Muslims,” Eibner said. “After 9/11 this became a much more serious theme, and everybody knows it. This is a major foreign-policy concern of the U.S. It’s seen as a matter of national security.”
That means, he continued, that policymakers worry that adopting specific measures to defend Christians in the Middle East “would put us in the position of being seen as Crusaders.”
Obama administration officials strenuously reject the criticism, noting that the president and his advisors regularly condemn the Islamic State’s attacks on religious minorities and that the White House began the ongoing military campaign against the group to ensure it couldn’t carry out a planned massacre of Yazidis.
Either way, the longer Washington waits, the greater the risk to beleaguered Christians in Iraq and Syria. Mark Arabo, an Iraqi-American Christian and California businessman who has pushed for Eshoo’s legislation, said Washington’s failure to act while the Islamic State continues to commit atrocities “has caused people from my community to die.”
To save lives, McDonnell said that she wants Washington to fill the special envoy position, offer greater asylum protections for Christians seeking to leave the Middle East, and create a protected enclave in Iraq’s Nineveh province, the area housing many of Iraq’s Christian refugees. Arabo, for his part, wants Washington also to expedite the visa process, offer airlifts for Christians in harm’s way, and provide humanitarian aid to displaced Christians inside Iraq. The message that Arabo wants lawmakers and White House officials to hear is a simple one: “In the absence of your leadership, you are sentencing my people to death.”
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That’s the fear keeping Eshoo up at night. The California lawmaker, who represents Silicon Valley, has a personal connection to the anti-Christian violence wracking Iraq and Syria. Eshoo’s mother lived in Baghdad briefly after fleeing her native Armenia and took her first communion at St. Mary’s, a large church in eastern Baghdad. Eshoo’s mother left Iraq decades ago and settled in the United States, but her daughter says the fate of the church highlights the declining safety of Iraq’s Christian community. In July 2009, as Iraq’s civil war was petering out, a car bomb detonated on a road running alongside the building shortly after mass. The blast killed four, injured dozens more, and left the city’s remaining Christians terrified that they would continue to be targeted because of their faith. Today, “you see history repeating itself,” Eshoo says.
The bill Eshoo helped craft last Congress, the Nineveh Plain Refugees Act of 2014, would have expedited the visa process for current or former residents of areas controlled by the Islamic State who were “targets of persecution in that country” due to their race or religion. The bill, formally introduced by California Democrat Juan Vargas, would give “refugees of special humanitarian concern” designations to Christians as well as to members of groups like the Yazidis, the religious minority that the Islamic State tried to exterminate last year, sparking the initial U.S. military strikes against the group. The bill died a quiet death, failing to even get a committee vote. Eshoo hopes the bill will be reintroduced in coming weeks, but says she isn’t terribly optimistic about its fate this time around either.
“There’s a disconnect between the urgency people feel on the ground and how slow our government moves in response,” she said. “It’s a very difficult slog.”
The Obama administration declined to comment on whether it supports Eshoo’s call for expedited visas for the Christians of Iraq or Syria or on when, or if, the special envoy position will finally be filled.
Administration officials say they are paying close attention to the plight of Iraq’s religious minorities and doing all they can to help. In an interview, Rabbi David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said that he has devoted the majority of his time since assuming his post last December to the plight of the Christians and other groups that find themselves in the crosshairs of the Islamic State.
Saperstein noted that when the Islamic State encircled thousands of members of the country’s Yazidi community and threatened to exterminate them last year, it was American warplanes that beat back the militants and allowed the civilians to escape their clutches. “There are scores of thousands of people who are alive because of what we did,” he said.
The ambassador, a prominent Reform Jewish rabbi, visited Iraq for several days last month and said he heard firsthand about the fears many Iraqi religious leaders have about what will happen to their communities if the Islamic State isn’t beaten back.
“ISIL is willing to eviscerate the communities and religious groups that do not comport with their worldview,” he said, noting that many of the group’s victims were other Muslims. “They are waging a war against everyone different from them, and that is devastating — and could further devastate the Christian community.”
Saperstein said the United States wasn’t sitting idly by, noting that Washington had helped resettle more than 119,000 Iraqis since 2007, including large numbers of Christians. In fiscal year 2014 alone, he said, 19,000 Iraqi refugees came to the United States, including roughly 4,500 Christians and members of other religious minorities.
Still, Saperstein declined to say whether he believed Washington should expedite visa applications from Christians living in areas menaced by the Islamic State. Part of the reason, he said, was that many of the religious leaders he spoke to didn’t want members of their communities to flee unless they absolutely had to. The Christians and Yazidis of Iraq have lived there for thousands of years, and Saperstein said many hope the U.S.-led efforts against the Islamic State will make it safe for them to continue doing so.
That may be wishful thinking, at least in the short term. In late February, militants from the Islamic State assaulted a string of Christian villages in northeastern Syria, blowing up churches, lighting homes on fire, and abducting at least 250 people. Several dozen women, children, and elderly men were released recently after their families and friends paid ransoms to the very same people attacking other Christians. The remaining hostages haven’t been seen since.
Correction, March 13, 2015: The Nineveh Plain Refugee Act of 2014 was drafted by Reps. Juan Vargas and Anna Eshoo but introduced by Vargas alone. A previous version of this story incorrectly said the bill was introduced by Eshoo.
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian is a journalist covering China from Washington. She was previously an assistant editor and contributing reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BethanyAllenEbr