The current administration in Washington has expressed, in words, that this situation cannot be tolerated. It is time now for deeds, as well, to reverse the previous administrations’ virtual abandonment of Christians in the Middle East to the fate of persecution at the hands of Islamists.
In September 2007, then-Senator Obama wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, expressing “concern for Iraq’s Christian and other non-Muslim religious minorities, including Catholic Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian, Armenian and Protestant Christians, as well as smaller Yazidi and Sabean Mandaean communities.”
“These communities appear to be targeted by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants… And according to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, ‘violence against members of Iraq’s Christian community occurs throughout the country’… Such violence bespeaks a humanitarian crisis of grave proportions. The severe violations of religious freedom faced by members of these indigenous communities, and their potential extinction from their ancient homeland, is deeply alarming… and demand an urgent response from our government.”
In spite of Senator Obama’s having addressed the growing threat to Christians and other ethno-religious minorities in Iraq, their situation would only deteriorate during the eight years of his presidency. While President George W. Bush may have opened the gates of hell for Iraq’s Christians, President Obama not only widened them, but unleashed the demons on Syria. The following give some idea of this downward spiral:
Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, after earlier underreported exoduses of Christians from the country, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, making up 5.4% of its overall population of 26 million. Today, 15 years later, Iraq’s Christian population stands at less than 250,000, a drop of 82%, and a mere 0.65% of Iraq’s general and much larger population of 38 million.
In 2011, there were 1.8 – 2 million Christians in Syria, who made up 8% of the country’s total population of 23 million. Today, less than seven years later, no more than 500,000 Christians, out of a total population of 18.2 million can be found in their war-torn homeland — a drop of more than 72%.
Enter the Trump Administration
The classical Christian populations in the Middle East consist of Copts, Greeks, Armenians and Arameans — the latter being the indigenous people of Southeast Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As a stateless Semitic people, who live in a global diaspora, the Arameans include the traditionally Aramaic-speaking churches of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Chaldeans, Nestorians (also known as Assyrians), Maronites, Melkite Orthodox and Melkite Catholics.
Their incessant pleas and cries for help from the international community seem to have fallen on deaf ears for more than a decade; these Middle Eastern Christians feel abandoned and betrayed by both the United Nations and America. Statements emerging from the Trump administration, however, have given rise to new hope.
Addressing the “In Defense of Christians” summit in Washington at the end of October, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a message that “help is on the way.”
Declaring that the U.N. “has too often failed to help the most vulnerable communities… [and] too often denies their funding requests,” Pence promised that “from this day forward, America will provide support directly to persecuted [Christian] communities through USAID.”
This is why persecuted Christians greeted Trump’s election last year with cautious optimism, anxious to see whether he would follow Obama’s example and ignore their plight, or take action on behalf of his coreligionists abroad. Statements Trump made, both before and after his inauguration — such as tweeting, “Christians in the Middle East have been executed in large numbers. We cannot allow this horror to continue!” — indicated that he might actually come to their aid.As an Aramean (Syriac Orthodox), whose family originates from Southeast Turkey — where the indigenous Arameans have been reduced to fewer than 2,000 people struggling for survival — I felt encouraged. As the head of the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs), an NGO with special consultative status at the U.N., I can testify to the truth of Pence’s statements. Our organization frequently has brought the needs and challenges of the Christians and other threatened minorities to the attention of the international community — mainly through the Human Rights Council of the U.N. Human Rights Council and its Commission of Inquiry on Syria — to no avail.
When Trump entered the Oval Office, cynics argued that Trump’s words were hollow. In an op-ed in the Washington Post in January 2017, Daniel Williams, author of Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East, called Middle Eastern Christians “Trump’s pawns.”
Yet Trump’s actions, so far, have involved putting the genies of Bush and Obama back in the bottle. Trump ended the covert CIA program of 2013 to arm the “rebels” in Syria; he spoke out against “radical Islamic terrorism” during his first address to Congress; he visited the heart of the Muslim world in Riyadh, where he urged leaders of Islamic states to “drive out the terrorists from your places of worship;” and he contributed to the defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
All of the above are fulfillments of his campaign promises, and thus bode well for the fate of the remaining Christians in the Middle East. Much work needs to be done to help them, however.
To this end, the White House urgently needs to develop a clear vision of how to help Christianity survive — let alone thrive — in its homeland. At the moment, there seems to be no foreign policy based on this vision. Trump might launch an international conference — similar to one held in Budapest in October — to address and engage the lay and religious Mideast Christian leaders, with the participation of world representatives.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration should pressure the U.N. Security Council to recognize the genocide, committed by ISIS, which uprooted many tens of thousands of Aramean Christians, Yazidis and others from their ancestral lands. It is not enough to defeat and punish ISIS and other terrorist groups; their victims must be acknowledged and provided help. America also could demand that the U.N. declare an International Day of Solidarity with the Threatened Christians of the Middle East.
Christian America’s Duty and Role
America was founded on Judeo-Christian values. Almost all U.S. presidents, including Trump, and members of Congress, have identified themselves as Christian. Yet Christians, members of the largest religion in the world, have become the most persecuted faith group but lack a political voice. In addition, as a result of failed U.S. foreign policy, Christians have vanished in record numbers from the lands where the traditional and still main religion of America (and Europe) was born. In view of its Christian roots and identity, America has a moral obligation to the cradle of Christianity from becoming “Christenrein” (“free of Christians”).
Christians in and from the Middle East should be viewed as reliable partners and allies in securing America’s interest in a more viable and prosperous region, where Jews, Christians, Muslims and others are able to coexist peacefully on equal footing.