Katholieke Vereniging voor Oecumene

Athanasius & Willibrord

Wat kan het Westen doen voor christenen in het Midden-Oosten?

kail ellisvillanova eduOnlangs vond in Berlijn bij de Konrad Adenauer Stichting een kleine conferentie plaats over de vraag wat het Westen kan doen voor de blijvende aanwezigheid van christenen in het Midden Oosten. Een van de deelnemers aan de conferentie was dr. Kail Ellis o.s.a., hoogleraar politieke wetenschappen en gespecialiseerd in de geschiedenis van het Midden-Oosten. Met zijn toestemming publiceren we hieronder zijn bijdrage aan de conferentie in Berlijn over de vraag wat de Europese Unie en de Verenigde Staten in politiek opzicht kunnen doen ter ondersteuning van de blijvende christelijke aanwezigheid in het Midden-Oosten.

What Could the European Union and the United States do politically to ensure that Christians remain in their Home Countries?

Up to this point, we have discussed the plight of refugees who have left their home countries. I am pleased that his panel will now discuss what the European Union and the United States could do politically to ensure that all citizens remain in their home countries and, by extension, other ethnic and religious minorities.

It should be recognized that even if the status quo ante were to be restored, thereby enabling Christians and other minorities to stay in their homelands, critical issues must be addressed to ensure that this happens. First among them is securing the equality of citizens and human rights for citizens.

Secular Nationalism:

The promise of secular nationalism where, regardless of religion, sect or ethnicity all citizen could enjoy equality and human rights, has not been realized. Instead, secular nationalism led to the inconsistent concept of the nation or leader as above the interests of the individual citizen and to the promulgation of laws that stressed the Islamic nature of regimes. So-called secular regimes such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Assads in Syria, engaged in measured Islamic-oriented policies as far back as the 1980s under pressure of the Iran-Iraq war and the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Homs. The integration of minority groups into the national community became impossible as the intellectual pendulum of the Arab world swung back toward Islamist ideas of politics. Current interpretations of Islamic law tend to create new divisions of marginalization, even among Muslim citizens not of the majority sect.


Prominent analysts from think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the Hudson Institute, and religious organizations, such the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops suggest the following recommendations:

1. Confront the reality of Religious Persecution: Resisting religious persecution and promoting religious freedom are important not only for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East; they are critical for those societies as a whole. The US administration has often shied away from voicing concerns about Christians in the region, perhaps to protect them. Other government bodies have been more aggressive. On September 10, 2015, the US House of Representatives introduced a bipartisan resolution (H. Con. Res. 75) denouncing the genocide being perpetrated against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. This resolution was finally passed unanimously on March 14, 2016 by a vote of 383-0. [1] This resolution was followed by an announcement by Secretary John Kerry on March 17, 2016, that in his judgment, “Daesh is responsible for crimes against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims,” and “Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases against Sunni Muslims and Kurds and other minorities.” [2]

As important as these resolutions and statements are, the US and EU should work with other nations, particularly those in the region, to promote education, pluralism, tolerance, and respect. This should be done by specifically designating aid to elementary and secondary education. The establishment of Salafi-funded madrassas by countries in the Gulf region that promote a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan should be a lesson for the Middle East. A different model has been the Christian institutions that have provided quality services to all segments of society especially in education, through the establishment of schools from the primary level to colleges and universities that have supported the less advantaged regardless of religious affiliation. These initiatives should be increased and strongly supported with financial and other resources by the EU and US governmental agencies. Support for intercultural education and interfaith dialogue as well as investments in strengthening the rule of law and impartial judicial systems are critical to reestablishing pluralistic societies respectful of religious freedom and human rights.

2. Promote the need for basic freedom, pluralism, and tolerance in how societies are governed: The US administration has at times framed much of its work as engagement with the Muslim world. All aspects of diverse Middle East societies need to be engaged and be specifically tailored, e.g., Iraq’s Shi’a leaders to be more responsive to the needs of the Sunni minority; engage Egypt’s current leaders to highlight the downsides of current Egyptian laws that restrict religious freedom; work with Israel and the Palestinian Authority to lift restrictions on movement and ensure access to Jerusalem and Bethlehem for all Christians.

3. Use existing governmental agencies to integrate religious freedom in diplomatic engagement and developmental assistance in the region. The U.S. passed the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, to promote religious freedom as a foreign policy of the United States, and to advocate on the behalf of the individuals viewed as persecuted in foreign countries. Pursuant to this act, it established several agencies such as the Office of International Religious Freedom to promote religious freedom and appointed an ambassador-at-large, currently David Saperstein, for international religious freedom, to engage with religious leaders, civil society representatives, and government officials.[3] These acts allow for a wide range of responses—from a private or public condemnation to withdrawing, limiting, or suspending some forms of U.S. aid. These tools should be used more actively based on the State Department’s annual country reports on international religious freedom.

4. The Responsibility to Protect: While not advocating von Clausewitz’s dictum: “War is the continuation of politics by other means,” we need to recognize the necessity for the international community to use proportionate and discriminate force to stop unjust aggressors and protect religious minorities and civilians. Pope Francis has reiterated that it is “licit” to use force to stop unjust aggressors and to protect religious minorities and civilians. There is an important caveat, however. Past US involvement in the region has contributed to the Shia-Sunni tensions and weakened the rule of law. Therefore, the US must be particularly careful as it employs force to do so in close collaboration with international and local partners.

5. Partnering with a wide range of churches, charities, private corporations, foundations, and nongovernmental organizations. These organizations have extensive relationships, knowledge and contacts with Christian communities throughout the Middle East. They operate through networks based on trust and are ground in knowledge that has been built up over decades of community service. Low-profile delivery of support through these partners would allow the United States to both leverage this experience and avoid drawing unwanted attention to the very communities it is trying to assist.

6. Advance international diplomatic approaches to conflict resolution and include communities of faith: It is critical to address political exclusion and economic desperation that are being manipulated by ISIL in its recruitment. Encourage inclusive government in Iraq and Syria that respects human rights for all. Diplomatic solutions can be effective; e.g., the Iran nuclear deal, resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Syria’s civil war, would advance a more favorable environment to isolate terrorist extremist groups and establish a framework for ensuring the rights of all citizens, including Christians.

7. Use strategic communications to promote religious freedom, pluralism, and inclusivity as a priority. A more concerted effort in coordination with a diverse group of faith leaders in the region, including Muslims, should occur, that would speak more clearly about the importance of religious freedom and pluralism with a greater emphasis on supporting religious freedom.

8. Humanitarian and Development Assistance: the number of people affected by humanitarian crises today is staggering. The US must scale up humanitarian and development assistance to host countries and trusted NGO and religious relief organizations that are struggling to aid displaced persons but also to prepare for their return home countries. They must also recognize that investments in international assistance not only alleviate human suffering, they are also investments in peace.

9. Work openly to end the polarization destroying the Middle East and do not unwittingly become part of it: The escalating competition between Gulf monarchies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran – now reflected in an Iran/Russia axis pitted against a Saudi-led coalition – is as grave a threat to stability as ISIS, driving the region’s sectarian currents and opening space for extremism. Western leaders should acknowledge this publicly and redouble efforts to dampen tensions. Unless they do that, no strategy to defeat ISIS will be effective.”[4]

[1] Michelle Boorstein, “The U.S. House just voted unanimously that the Islamic State commits ‘genocide.’ Now what?,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/03/15/the-u-s-house-just-voted-unanimously-that-the-islamic-state-commits-genocide-now-what/

[2] John Kerry, Secretary State, “Remarks on Daesh and Genocide,” http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2016/03/254782.htm

[3] U.S. Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement, http://www.state.gov/s/rga/strategy/

[4] Jean-Marie Guéhenno, “Destroying ISIS: 10 dos and don’ts,” World Economic Forum, January 17, 2016. http://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/01/destroying-isis-10-dos-and-don-ts

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