Category Archives: Mark L. Movsesian

Don’t Forget the Christians

This past weekend, the United States began to intervene in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Iraq. The Islamist group, ISIS, has made a lightning conquest of much of the region, persecuting religious minorities, and even some Sunni Muslims, everywhere it goes. In response, the US has begun air drops of food and water to up to 40,000 Yazidi refugees stranded on Mt. Sinjar, where ISIS militants have them surrounded. And the US undertook airstrikes against ISIS positions threatening the Kurdish city of Erbil, where hundreds of American advisers are stationed. Other Western nations have begun to get involved as well. The United Kingdom dropped supplies to the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar, and France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, visited Erbil to assess the situation.

BBC

Christian Refugees in Erbil (BBC)

In planning and delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees, the West — and particularly the United States, which has taken primary responsibility — should not ignore the plight of Christians. It may seem odd to voice this concern. After all, President Obama specifically mentioned Christians in his statements about American action. But Mideast Christians are often an afterthought for the United States, and it seems they are in this situation again. A Wall Street Journal report, which quotes unnamed members of the Obama administration, indicates the threat of genocide against Yazidis was the primary factor in the American decision to intervene. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things that we’ve confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature of it, the scale of it, the fact that this is a whole people,” the official said.

That is a rather myopic view of the situation. We’re offering assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS has driven from their homes and threatened to slaughter. Great—we should. But in the weeks before ISIS turned on the Yazidis, it had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert. ISIS eliminated major Christian communities in Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the US responded only with a concerned statement from its UN ambassador. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have become refugees since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If genocide correctly describes what threatens the Yazidis, it also describes what’s happening to Iraqi Christians. Indeed, many of these Christians are the descendents of people who suffered genocide at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are reasons why America tends to treat Mideast Christians as an afterthought. Mideast Christians lack a natural constituency in American public life. They are, as one commentator observed, too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left. Most of our foreign policy elites have a blind spot about them. And I don’t mean to single out the Obama administration. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has recounted her attempts to get the Bush administration to focus on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, only to be told by Condoleezza Rice that assistance for Christians would make the United States appear sectarian.

To draw attention to the plight of Iraq’s Christians is not special pleading. The US should not concern itself only with Christians; other religious minorities deserve our attention, too. But, in the Middle East and around the world, Christians are often targeted for persecution in particularly severe ways, and the human rights community often seems not to notice. Indeed, as Pope Francis explained in remarks at a conference the Center for Law and Religion co-sponsored in Rome this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today:

It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.

It’s good that the United States has begun attempts to alleviate a human rights crisis for which it bears much responsibility. Let’s hope it does not ignore some of the principal victims of that crisis.

Iraq’s Christians Still Need Our Help

For people seeking to understand the crisis facing the Christians of Iraq, there’s an interesting panel discussion on the website of France 24, an English-language news station based in Paris: “Iraq’s Christians: Nowhere to Run?” The discussion is in two segments, here and here. It features a French senator, Nathalie Goulet; the New York Times Paris Bureau chief, Alissa Rubin; lawyer Ardavan Amir Aslani; and Christelle Yalap of the Committee for the Support of Iraqi Christians, a French NGO.

The panel is worth watching in full, if only to learn about the discussion taking place in another Western country. The panelists disagree about the responsibility America bears for the situation. Although the invasion of Iraq destabilized the country and exposed Christians and other minorities to grave danger, Islamism is not simply a response to American actions. It results from factors internal to the Muslim world. America has been only a peripheral actor in the Arab Spring. And yet, as one of the panelists says, the Arab Spring always seems to become an Islamist autumn.

One thing stood out for me in particular. Ms. Yalap, who offers a succinct description of the Christian community of Mosul, makes the very important point that the ordeal of this community did not end with expulsion from its home. Her NGO has been in touch with these Christians, who have taken refuge in Erbil, in Kurdistan. Apparently, ISIS has continued to pursue them there, and has succeeded in cutting off  their water and electricity. It’s summer in Erbil, and the temperature is around 113°. The Christians of Mosul continue to face a humanitarian crisis. Will the international community do something to help?

This weekend, rallies in support of Iraq’s Christians are planned around the world, including here in New York, at the UN. For information, please click here.

France to Facilitate Asylum for Iraqi Christians

France has offered to facilitate asylum for Iraqi Christians who have fled Mosul since the takeover of that city by ISIS, the jidahist group. The announcement came in a joint communiqué by Foreign Minister Laurence Fabius and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve.

Granting asylum is a very imperfect solution to the crisis Mideast Christianity currently faces. Indeed, Mideast Christian leaders typically resist the “escape option,” out of concern that Christian emigration will put an end to faith communities that have endured for thousands of years. For many Mideast Christians, though, emigration may be the only option left.

Fast-tracking asylum is the least the West can do for Iraqi Christians–but it may also be, sadly, the most. France, which traditionally has seen itself as the protector of Christians, especially Catholics, in the Middle East, deserves credit for taking this step. It would be nice if the United States, which bears principal responsibility among Western countries for what has happened to Iraqi Christians, would do the same thing. (H/T: Rod Dreher).

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Why Did ISIS Destroy the Tomb of Jonah?

On Friday, the media reported that ISIS, the Islamist group that has established a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, had destroyed the centuries-old Tomb of Jonah in Mosul, Iraq. Present-day Mosul encompasses the site of the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where, the Bible teaches, the Prophet Jonah preached. Although this is disputed, a tradition holds that Jonah was buried within the city, on Tell Nebi Yunus, or Hill of the Prophet Jonah.

An Assyrian church stood over the tomb for centuries. After the Muslim conquest, the church became a mosque; the structure that ISIS destroyed last week dated to the 14th century. In addition to the tomb, the mosque once held the supposed remains of the whale that had swallowed Jonah, including one of its teeth. At some point, even the tooth had disappeared. In 2008, the U.S. Army presented the mosque with a replica.

Last week, ISIS closed the mosque and prevented worshipers from entering. Then it wired the structure with explosives and reduced it to rubble (above). You can see a video of the explosion here, taken by a Mosul resident, who mutters, in Arabic, “No, no, no. Prophet Jonah is gone. God, these scoundrels.”

Some commentators have explained the destruction of the tomb as part of ISIS’s anti-Christian campaign. Scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss point out that, in Christian interpretation, the Old Testament story of Jonah prefigures the death and resurrection of Christ. “The destruction of his tomb in Mosul is therefore a direct assault on Christian faith, and on one of the few physical traces of that faith remaining in Iraq.” Another scholar, Sam Hardy, told the Washington Post that the destruction of the tomb shows that ISIS is willing to destroy “pretty much anything in the Bible.”

On this analysis, ISIS destroyed the tomb because of its Christian associations. But that mistakes ISIS’s motives in this case. True, ISIS has no respect for Christians or their sites of worship and, in fact, has driven Mosul’s Christians from the city. The fact that the tomb was sacred for Christians as well as Muslims—and contained a present from the US Army—cannot have endeared it to ISIS. But something else is going on here. The shrine was, after all, a mosque, and Jonah figures in the Quran as well as the Bible. To understand why ISIS destroyed the tomb, one has to appreciate something about the version of Islam the group espouses.

ISIS is part of the Salafi movement, a branch of Sunni Islam that seeks to return to the practices of the earliest Muslims – the salaf— who lived at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and just after. The movement rejects the centuries of subsequent developments in Islam as unjustified innovations–pagan accretions that adulterated the faith. In particular, the movement opposes the veneration of the graves of Islamic prophets and holy men. Salafis see this practice, which is associated most frequently with Sufi Islam, as a kind of idolatry, or shirk, that detracts from the absolute transcendence of God.

Salafi Islam prevails in Saudi Arabia, where it enjoys the patronage of the royal family. On the Arabian Peninsula, as now in Iraq, Salafis have destroyed the tombs of Islamic holy men. Indeed, when the Saudi royal family captured the city of Medina in the 19th century, Salafis systematically destroyed the tombs of several of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions and family members, leaving only the Prophet’s tomb itself unmolested. There is some thought that the Saudi government plans on dismantling even that tomb, but hesitates to do so because of the uproar that would result in other Muslim communities.

In short, one should see ISIS’s destruction of the tomb of Jonah as an act principally directed at other Muslims, not Christians. That doesn’t make it any better, of course. Will the outside world do anything in response? Unlikely. Besides, as Professor Hardy told the Post, “If we didn’t intervene when they were killing people, it would be kind of grotesque to intervene over a building.”

America’s Duty to Iraq’s Christians

At The Week, columnist Michael Brandon Dougherty has a hard-hitting piece on America’s responsibility to Iraq’s Christians. In light of the fact that America’s invasion, occupation, and withdrawal created a situation of great and continuing peril for Christians, America should be doing much more to help them. For example, he writes:

Although I’m generally inclined toward a more restrictive position on immigration, the U.S. should, as a matter of practice, be especially generous in granting refugee status to the collateral victims of the war we started in Iraq. It should even offer some refugees of ISIS persecution the material resources to emigrate to America if they so desire.

The dream of transforming Iraq into an incubator of Arab liberalism has turned into a nightmare for religious minorities. America’s intervention in Iraq, and its support of Syrian and Libyan rebels, have created a disastrous disorder in which Islamist threats thrive.

Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.

Read the whole thing.

Is ISIS Ready to Move on Aleppo?

This is very disturbing news. Walter Russell Mead reports that ISIS, last seen expelling the Christians of Mosul, Iraq, from their ancestral homeland, may be readying an attack on Aleppo in Syria:

A Syrian army officer interviewed by al-Monitor is entirely certain that this fight is coming. Maybe not tomorrow, but “very soon,” he says—and the regime is preparing itself.

The fall of Aleppo would have strong symbolic resonance across the Middle East. If ISIS were to capture Aleppo, it will have two of the oldest cities in the Middle East in its pocket. Mosul is the fabled city of Nineveh while Aleppo is the ancient city of Halab, and no one power has held both strongholds since the Ottoman Empire. While this may not seem like a big deal to Western observers, history is experienced very differently especially in that part of the world. And jihadists love a winner: The possession of two storied cities would be a big selling point in ISIS’ recruitment drive.

The Assad regime would offer a much tougher opponent than the hapless Maliki government in Iraq, Mead notes. And Assad “has at least the reluctant backing of Syria’s minorities, who fear that ISIS will conduct the same sort of ethnic cleansing in Syria as it has in Iraq.” Still, as Syria’s financial center, Aleppo would be a great prize, and ISIS will be sorely tempted to keep up the momentum. Stay tuned.

Peter Berger on the Anglican Establishment

At The American Interest, Peter Berger has an interesting post on the benefits of the Anglican establishment. He suggests, citing sociologist Grace Davie, that other countries should consider a soft establishment along Anglican lines, as a way “to combine a specific religious identity with freedom for all those who do not share it”:

Grace Davie, the distinguished British sociologist of religion, has proposed an interesting idea: A strong establishment of a church is bad for both religion and the state–for the former because the association with state policies undermines the credibility of religion, and for the latter because the support of one religion over all others creates resentment and potential instability. But a weak establishment is good for both institutions, because a politically powerless yet still symbolically privileged church can be an influential voice in the public arena, often in defense of moral principles. Davie’s idea nicely fits the history of the Church of England.  In earlier centuries it persecuted Roman Catholics and discriminated against Nonconformist Protestants and Jews. More recently it has used its “bully pulpit” for a number of good causes, not least being the rights of non-Christians. Thus very recently influential Jewish and Muslim figures have voiced strong support for the continuing establishment of the Church of England, among them Jonathan Sacks, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and the Muslim Sayeeda Warsi, currently  Minister of Faith and Communities in David Cameron’s cabinet.

Of course it would be foolish to recommend that the British version of state/church relations be accepted in other countries—as foolish as to expect other countries to adopt the very distinctive American form of the separation of church and state. However, as I have suggested in other posts on this blog, the British arrangement is worth pondering by other countries who wish to combine a specific religious identity with freedom for all those who do not share it. For starters, I’ll mention all countries who want legislation to be based on “Islamic principles” (not full-fledged sharia law); Russia, struggling to define the public role of the Orthodox Church; Israel trying to define the place of Judaism in its democracy; India, similarly seeking to fit hindutva into its constitutional description as a “secular republic”. In a globalizing world, cross-national comparisons can be surprisingly useful.

 

The Dhimma Returns in Iraq

al arabiya

Photo: Al Arabiya

Sad news from Iraq this weekend. In response to an ultimatum from ISIS–the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” or, if you prefer, just the “Islamic State–Christians have evacuated the northern city of Mosul. For thousands of years, Mosul has been a center of Christianity, particularly the various Syriac Christian communions: Chaldean-rite Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the Assyrian Church of the East, a church that once spread as far as China. As recently as a decade ago, tens of thousands of Christians lived in Mosul. After this weekend, virtually none remain.

The expulsion of Christians from Mosul suggests something very worrying about the possible future of Islamism. And it serves as a reminder of what can happen to religious minorities when secular dictatorships in the Arab world collapse.

Mosul lies within the territory of the “caliphate” that ISIS, a militant Sunni Islamist group, has proclaimed in parts of Iraq and Syria. Its ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul is the same it gave the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced last week: “Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” In recent days, ISIS operatives went through Mosul marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun” for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear.

Some readers may be unfamiliar with the term dhimma. The dhimma is the notional contract that governs relations between the Muslim umma and Christians (and Jews) in classical Islamic law. Theoretically, it dates back to the “agreement” one of the early caliphs made with the Christian community of Syria. The dhimma allows Christian communities to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya—in Mosul, ISIS was requiring a jizya of about $500—and submission to various social and legal restrictions. The dhimma forbids Christians from attracting attention during worship, for example, from building new churches, and generally from asserting equality with Muslims.

It’s wise to take ISIS at its word. On Saturday, ISIS operatives expelled the 52 Christian families who remained in the city–after first requiring them to leave all their valuables behind. For good measure, ISIS also burned an 1800-year-old church and the Catholic bishop’s residence, along with its library and manuscript collection.

One could say much about this sad uprooting of Christianity from a place where it has survived for millennia, but here are two observations. First, a psychological line has been crossed, and this may have dire consequences in future. For the moment, ISIS is unique among Islamist groups in calling for formal reinstatement of the dhimma. Although Islamists everywhere reject the idea of equality for Muslims and Christians, they typically avoid calling for the dhimma, as they understand that most contemporary Muslims find the concept abhorrent. Nothing succeeds like success, however. ISIS has now shown that it is possible to reestablish the dhimma at the center of the Muslim world. Other Islamist groups will no doubt take notice. Christians who remain in the Middle East have great cause for worry.

Second, although principal responsibility for this outrage lies with ISIS, and with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose misgovernment has created a situation in which ISIS can gain a following, the United States bears responsibility as well. Its invasion of, and hasty withdrawal from, Iraq set in motion a chain of events that has allowed radical groups like ISIS to succeed. In the Middle East, secular dictatorships can be very brutal. But they are often the only thing that stands in the way of the absolute destruction of minority religious communities. Toppling such dictatorships and hoping for their replacement by “moderate” elements is not a good bet. Incredibly, this seems to be a lesson the United States still has to learn.

#BringBackOurChristians

Last spring, Boko Haram, a jihadist group fighting to establish an Islamist state in Nigeria, kidnapped hundreds of girls from a public school in the city of Chibok. The kidnapping led to a worldwide hashtag campaign, #BringBackOurGirls. Media celebrities signed up; political leaders, too, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron. American First Lady Michelle Obama famously tweeted a photo from the White House.

Three months have passed. Boko Haram has not released the girls, but the hashtag is no longer trending. The media has moved on to other stories. In fact, Boko Haram appears to miss the attention. This week, the group released a video to remind the world it’s still around.

The video features the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau (left), ridiculing the West’s campaign to free the girls and demanding, instead, that Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, release members of Boko Haram currently in prison. “You go around saying ‘Bring Back Our Girls,'” he mocks. “Bring Back Our Army.” For good measure, he repeats gleefully into the camera, “Kill, Kill, Kill, Kill Christians!”

The video is worth watching for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a nice lesson in the limits of social media. Feel-good hashtag campaigns, on their own, accomplish precisely nothing. To refer without irony to “the promise of the hashtag,” as a State Department spokesperson recently did in the context of the Ukraine crisis, is an embarrassment. Groups like Boko Haram will laugh off such trivialities or, indeed, co-opt them for their own purposes. So will other, more sovereign, opponents.

I don’t suggest the West should send commandos to Nigeria to free the girls, even assuming we could find them. Invading countries has a way of backfiring. In fact, we may not be capable of very much in this situation, unfortunately. But one thing’s for sure. Juvenile, self-regarding tweets–the foreign-policy version of selfies–will only make the West seem effete and, well, laughable.

Second, Shekau’s call to “Kill Christians” clarifies something important. As as a result of the Chibok kidnapping, the West sees Boko Haram as anti-women. But that’s a relatively minor part of the story. Boko Haram is not principally anti-women, but anti-Christian. The group has been carrying out atrocities against Christians for years. It’s just that the West has not found the story important. Indeed, Chibok itself is a largely Christian city, and most of the kidnapped schoolgirls are Christians. That’s a major reason why Boko Haram abducted them in the first place.

The media and Western human rights advocates have a hard time seeing Christians as sympathetic victims. Even when they acknowledge that Christians are suffering, they feel they somehow have to apologize for raising the subject. (Nicholas Kristof’s recent column for the New York Times is a good example). This bias prevents clear understanding, though. “Bring Back Our Girls?” How about, “Bring Back Our Christians?”