Experts: Iraq Christians are on the “Edge of Extinction”

May 22nd, 2015 | By | Category: Weekly Washington Updates

Panel Discusses Endangered Iraqi Christians

By Andrew Harrod, PhD.  – Exclusive to the Religious Freedom Coalition

For Christians and other minorities in Iraq the “situation is very, very grim,” concluded former congressman Frank Wolf during the May 6 panel “Edge of Extinction:  The Eradication of Religious and Ethnic Minorities in Iraq.”  This highly informative American Enterprise Institute event fully substantiated his assessment before a standing-room-only audience of about 70, including religious freedom activists Faith McDonnell, William Murray, and Mark Tooley.

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) has been a great defender of religious liberty during his time in office.

Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) was  a great defender of religious liberty during his time in office. In retirement he continues to work for religious freedom internationally

Wolf, the “Godfather of international religious freedom” as described by fellow panelist and religious freedom expert Nina Shea from the Hudson Institute, discussed the panel’s theme in light of his recent Iraq trip.  Once numbering 1.5 million in 2003, Wolf observed, Iraq’s Christian community had fallen to perhaps as few as 200,000.  Under the genocidal assaults of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) in recent years against Yazidis and Christians, the Christian community “is facing extinction if the current trajectory remains.”  He noted the jihadist motto “first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people” and the extinction precedent set for Iraqi Christians by Jews, as some 150,000 Iraqi Jews have dwindled over decades to fewer than ten today.

Wolf particularly noted Christianity’s “ancient roots” in Mesopotamia’s “cradle of Christianity” where “more biblical activity took place in Iraq than any other country outside of Israel.”  ISIS “crime against humanity,” Shea said, included not just genocide, but the ravaging of a “cultural mosaic.”  Destruction of Iraqi minority communities, stated United States Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Daniel Mark, meant that “we lose a piece of world history forever.”  ISIS, Wolf noted, had destroyed among other heritage treasures Jonah’s tomb in Mosul near the biblically significant Nineveh Plains.

Mark sought “to emphasize the breadth and depth of this crisis” with ISIS, “barbarians of the worst possible kind” who would separate captive women according to eye color before raping them.  ISIS effectively offers non-Muslims “no jizya option” of sharia subjugation, Shea noted, something that had previously allowed for a “dhimmi status…less than second-class citizens” in the region under the Ottoman Empire.  ISIS’ other two remaining traditional sharia options for non-Muslims are “basically ‘convert or die.’”

Shea stated that the situation is “likely to get worse before it gets better.”  She analogized defenseless Nineveh Plain villages to “always open” 7/11 stores while any urban fighting to wrest Mosul from ISIS control would be “very, very tough.”  In the interim “Lebanon is being overwhelmed” with refugees, Wolf noted, and similarly “Jordan is going to suffer tremendously.”

Wolf complained that Americans “are only doing a fraction of what could be done” to defeat ISIS, whose self-proclaimed caliphate was “not being met with urgency, nor with action.”  “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil,” he quoted from the executed Nazi resistance fighter Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and remarked that “we are being silent” as a human catastrophe is “taking place on our watch.”  “We are rather good at watching genocides,” Mark concurred while reviewing the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and other crimes of modern history. 

With 20,000 foreign fighters and pledged allegiance from Nigeria’s Boko Haram jihadists, the “manifold threat posed by ISIS” to American security as well as human rights interests called forth various recommendations from Wolf.  ISIS should be the subject of congressional hearings and the appointment of a special envoy.  Iraq’s Kurds, regionally “unique in their pro-American sentiments” and “prepared to battle the Islamic State,” desperately needed modern military assistance to combat an ISIS “armed to the hilt” with captured American weapons.  He also noted a congressional consensus to aid local defense forces such as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, although Mark worried that such militias would further a “balkanization” of Iraq opposed by the United States.  Shea expressed being “against boots on the ground, we can’t be the world’s policeman,” but advised that the United States could share more intelligence and other assets to support local forces.

Making a bad ISIS situation only worse, President Barack Obama’s administration often “has gone to great lengths” to avoid specifically identifying ISIS victims as Christian, Wolf complained.  Concerning individuals like the 21 Egyptian Copts beheaded in Libya, the Obama Administration discusses “everything but the fact that their religious identity has put them into the line of fire,” Shea concurred.  ISIS benefits from media and policymakers globally respecting a “blasphemy that is taboo in criticizing anything that mantles itself in Islam.”

Yet only by identifying ISIS ideology could proper “policies flow from that correct analysis,” Shea stated.  ISIS demonstrates that “radical Islamists today see religious freedom as a vice.”  Public diplomacy and pressure had worked against past religious persecution offenders to rectify some abuses, “but now we are seeing ISIS brandish on videos” its sectarian brutality.  To combat such a threat, Mark invoked the Cold War example of President Ronald Reagan who was “willing to call evil by name.”  Wolf similarly saw the “psychological battle against Communism” as a template for a war of ideas against various Islamic threats.  

Another complicating ideological factor came from the “red-headed stepchild” status of religious freedom among human rights advocacy, Shea noted.  This neglect had always harmed global faith freedom, but “now it’s actually become politically incorrect to talk about religious freedom.”  Her past discussion at the Newseum of the controversy over Indiana’s proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act brought audience responses of “why should we give religious freedom space when it violates other people’s rights.”

Particularly Christians suffered from a modern public perception “myopia” in which they could never be victims, Shea noted.  Danger deterred many journalists from ISIS war zones, but “nobody knows who these people are anyhow,” a New York Times writer once responded to Shea’s complaint about deficient coverage of Iraq’s suffering minorities.  Christians and others outside of Iraq “need to bring out these stories, because the media is not,” she concluded. 

All such analysis only added to a bleak geopolitical outlook for Iraq’s religious and ethnic minorities in the maelstrom of a wider regional conflict, Shea noted.  Bomb-making ammonium nitrate shipments freely transit the Turkish border towards ISIS-controlled areas because ISIS fights Turkey’s enemies of Iran and the Syrian Bashar Assad dictatorship.  Likewise the “Iraqi government has not acted like a government of all of its citizens” but has had a Shiite “sectarian mindset” that treated Iraqi Sunnis fleeing ISIS almost like foreign refugees.  

Abroad, meanwhile, “there is little appetite in the US and in the world” for taking on conflicts like ISIS, Mark noted, as “let the world burn” sentiment increasingly dominates America’s foreign policy outlook.  Like Jews throughout history, he suggested, many of Iraq’s Christians will have to rebuild their lives in new foreign homes.  “It is hard to image how the damage can be undone.”  (Full length video of panel below … William J. Murray, the chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition is seen asking a question of Congressman Wolf during the discussion period.)

About Dr. Andrew Harrod
Andrew E. Harrod is a researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter at @AEHarrod.

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