Tag Archives: Religious Minorities

Fordham Lecture Addresses Struggles of Religious Minorities in the Middle East

Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture will hold its Russo Family Lecture on Tuesday, May 10, 2016 at 6:00 p.m.    The speakers will address the topic “Endangered:  Religious Minorities in the Middle East and Their Struggle for Survival,” with a spotlight on these groups’ prospects in the midst of ongoing conflict in the region and the rise of ISIS.

Additional information, including speaker biographies, can be found here.

Calling It Genocide

In a press statement yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry did what many human rights activists have been asking him to do for months: he called ISIS’s treatment of Christians and other religious minorities “genocide.” Kerry’s statement came as a surprise. For months, the State Department had been hinting that, although it believed that ISIS’s treatment of Yazidis qualified as genocide, it was not prepared to use that word to refer to the group’s treatment of Christians. In fact, as late as Wednesday, in response to a looming congressional reporting deadline, the State Department indicated it would need more time to decide what to do.

State had been reluctant to use the word “genocide” with respect to Christians for a few reasons—all of them bad. First, ISIS’s treatment of Christians was said to differ from its treatment of other religious minorities. In theory, ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym, “Daesh,” allows Christians to remain unmolested as long as they pay the jizya  and comply with the other terms of the dhimma, the notional agreement that offers protection to “People of the Book.” By contrast, Yazidis, whom ISIS considers idolaters, receive no such protection. They must convert or die.

This distinction is specious. By contemporary human rights standards, the dhimma is quite oppressive. It’s silly to present it as a workable modus vivendi for religious minorities in the twenty-first century. Besides, as Nina Shea and others have documented, in practice ISIS routinely ignores the dhimma and engages in a systematic campaign of murder, rape, enslavement, and expulsion against Christians. Its activities, reminiscent of the last great wave of anti-Christian persecution in the region 100 years ago, clearly qualify as genocide as that term has come to be understood in contemporary law. ISIS manifestly aims “to destroy” Christians, “in whole or in part,” as a “religious group.”

Second, much of the evidence for genocide was said to remain hidden in ISIS-occupied territory, inaccessible to human rights observers. Without direct access, how could one be sure what was happening? It’s not necessary to be physically present, however, to know that ISIS is engaged in a campaign to drive out Christians (or murder them) and erase their culture. ISIS declares its intentions openly and makes videos to document its activities.

Finally, there was the longstanding worry that speaking out on behalf of Christians would appear sectarian and embarrass American goals in the region – and might actually work to Christians’ detriment. There is something to this. Mideast Christians often suffer from their association with Christians in the West. And Western intervention often occasions disaster for them (see: the Iraq War). But the situation is truly dire for Mideast Christians at the moment. Any marginal detriment would go unnoticed in the context of the overwhelming catastrophe they face.

Some may be inclined to dismiss the Secretary’s statement, but that would be wrong. True, in terms of legal consequences, the statement seems weak. “I am neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing by specific persons,” Kerry said. “Ultimately, the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal.” Meanwhile, the United States will “collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities,” and “do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.” In essence, he seems to be saying, the US will monitor the situation and refer for prosecution, either in the US or at an international tribunal, specific persons it determines to have engaged in genocide, and these people may eventually be convicted–assuming, of course, we can get our hands on them at all.

All this seems a bit remote. Candidly, ISIS’s leaders and operatives do not worry overmuch about legal process, in the US or elsewhere. Threatening to prosecute them is unlikely to deter them from their campaign to restore the caliphate. But law is not the most important criterion for judging Kerry’s statement. The statement has an important moral valence. “I hope,” Kerry said, “that my statement today will assure the victims of Daesh’s atrocities that the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.” Moreover, by highlighting the gravity of the situation, the statement may make it easier for human rights advocates to lobby the US and international organizations to offer needed humanitarian and financial assistance to Christians and other religious minorities. It may make it easier to convince the US and other Western countries to offer asylum to Christian and other religious refugees.

Yesterday’s statement was a welcome development. Thanks must go, not only to Secretary Kerry, but to Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who led a bipartisan effort in Congress to get the State to designate the treatment of Mideast Christians as genocide, as well as human rights activists like Shea, who worked tirelessly to keep this issue on the national agenda. For a long time, it has seemed that the suffering of Mideast Christians was not a priority for the US. Perhaps that has begun to change.

Lichtenstein, “Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia”

In March, the Indiana University Press will release “Zionists in Interwar Czechoslovakia: Minority Nationalism and the Politics of Belonging,” by Tatjana Lichtenstein (University of Texas at Austin).  The publisher’s description follows:

This book presents an unconventional history of minority nationalism in interwar Eastern Europe. Focusing on an influential group of 9780253018670_medgrassroots activists, Tatjana Lichtenstein uncovers Zionist projects intended to sustain the flourishing Jewish national life in Czechoslovakia. The book shows that Zionism was not an exit strategy for Jews, but as a ticket of admission to the societies they already called home. It explores how and why Zionists envisioned minority nationalism as a way to construct Jews’ belonging and civic equality in Czechoslovakia. By giving voice to the diversity of aspirations within interwar Zionism, the book offers a fresh view of minority nationalism and state building in Eastern Europe.

Christians, the State Department, and Genocide

syrian christians

Photo from The Guardian

At USA Today, columnist Kirsten Powers writes about the State Department’s apparent reluctance to refer to ISIS’s persecution of Iraqi and Syrian Christians as a genocide. The reluctance is puzzling. According to press reports, the Department is poised to declare a genocide ISIS’s persecution of another religious minority, the Yazidis. If Yazidis are the victims of genocide, she asks, why not Christians? The situation of these two persecuted minorities is quite similar.

Powers makes a very good point. The 1948 Genocide Convention defines “genocide” as, among other things, “deliberately inflicting on” a religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Obviously, what ISIS is doing to the Yazidis qualifies. So does what ISIS is doing to Christians. ISIS is driving Christians from their homes, seizing their property, and, quite often, killing them in the most horrible ways. How does that not qualify as a genocide?

Apparently, the State Department is hesitating because, unlike Yazidis, Christians have a way out. As “People of the Book” under classical Islamic law — which ISIS has purported to restore in its newly declared caliphate — Christians can choose to abide by the terms of the Dhimma, the notional contract that governs the treatment of Christians, Jews, and some other minorities. As dhimmis, Christians may remain in the new caliphate as long as they follow the rules – paying the jizya tax, for example, and accepting social subordination. (I detail the dhimmi restrictions ISIS has imposed on the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria here).

As Powers point out, however, on many occasions, ISIS has disregarded the dhimmi rules. Moreover, even at their best, the rules are punishing. The jizya is often set at a level where many Christians cannot pay it. These Christians have no choice but to leave. More fundamentally, how is it acceptable to tell religious minorities that things are comparatively good for them because they can “choose” to accept oppressive and demeaning treatment and manage to survive? Quite obviously, ISIS’s goal is to eliminate these ancient Christian communities. And it is largely succeeding: those Christians who can do so are fleeing. Some experts believe that Christianity will disappear from Iraq and Syria – places where Christians have lived the religion began – within one or two generations.

Last Friday, a group of Christian leaders, human rights advocates, and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting on this question, at which they hope to persuade him that Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis, should be included in any designation of a genocide. (Full disclosure: I am one of the signatories). Secretary Kerry has not yet responded.

Some persecuted minorities are funny

Take a look at this clip from a recent episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In the clip, Colbert mocks Republican presidential candidates who argue for admitting Syrian Christians as religious refugees. At least I think that’s what he’s doing. Unfortunately, in attacking the GOP, Colbert, who often speaks publicly of his devotion to Catholicism, uses Syrian Christians as a cheap prop.

Republican candidates want to admit Syrian Christians, but not Syrian Muslims, Colbert says, because they think Americans can “relate to average Syrian Christians.” After all, Syrian Christians are “basically Methodists.” For example, he continues, with the cutesy irony that has made him rich and famous, consider Syriac Orthodox Christians. They say something called the Ramsho Prayer every evening—“Ramsho Prayer,” incidentally, is how you say “Vespers” in Syriac—and read their Bibles in Aramaic. He continues with what he apparently thinks is a hilarious sendup of the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II. Flashing a picture of the patriarch in his liturgical robes, Colbert jokes that the vestments make Ignatius look like “Golden Snake Santa Pope,” a comic figure who would fit right in as King of Mardi Gras. Colbert’s piano-playing sidekick joins the audience in guffawing.

Now, I’m sure Colbert, who often makes jokes about his own church, thinks this is all good-natured fun. How clever! These GOP candidates know nothing about real Syrian Christians, and if they did, they’d be shocked, those ignoramuses. But it’s in very bad taste. The whole joke turns on showing how weird and unrelatable Syrian Christians are. That’s why the audience is laughing so hard. (You want us to admit these people?) The Syriac Orthodox have suffered for centuries and are enduring one of their worst trials right now, and Colbert is using them for a cheap gag. The joke is particularly unfortunate with respect to Ignatius himself. I’ve talked to people know him personally, and Ignatius is a saintly man. (But what about those silly clothes?). For many years, he was the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop in New Jersey. He could have continued to live a pleasant life here in the United States, but returned to the hellhole that is Syria last year in order to lead his flock.

Syrian Christians, and Mideast Christians more generally, have a public relations problem. The fact is, they are culturally different from Americans, and it is genuinely difficult for many American Christians to relate to them. That’s one reason why the United States has done so little to help them in the current crisis. Mocking them as weirdos doesn’t help. Those golden snakes on Ignatius’s staff are an ancient symbol of wisdom. Colbert should display some of it himself.

“Christianity and Freedom: Volume 2” (Hertzke et al., eds.)

In February, Cambridge University Press will release “Christianity and Freedom: Volume 2 Contemporary Perspectives” edited by Allen D. Hertzke (University of Oklahoma) and Timothy Samuel Shah (Georgetown University, Washington DC). The publisher’s description follows:

Volume 2 of Christianity and Freedom illuminates how Christian minorities and transnational Christian networks contribute to the freedom and flourishing of societies across the globe, even amidst pressure and violent persecution. Featuring unprecedented field research by some of the world’s most distinguished scholars, it documents the outsized role of Christians in promoting human rights and religious freedom; fighting injustice; stimulating economic equality; providing education, social services, and health care; and nurturing democratic civil society. Readers will come away surprised and sobered to learn how this very Christian link to freedom often invites persecution. What are the dimensions of persecution and how are Christians responding to that pressure? What resources – theological, social, or transnational – do they marshal in leavening their societies? What will be lost if the Christian presence is marginalized? The answers to these questions are of crucial relevance in a world awash with religious extremism and deepening instability.

“Muslim Minority-State Relations: Violence, Integration, and Policy” (Mason, ed.)

In January, Palgrave Macmillan will release “Muslim Minority-State Relations: Violence, Integration, and Policy” edited by Robert Mason (London School of Economics and Political Science, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

This volume explores the dominant types of relationships between Muslim minorities and states in different parts of the world, the challenges each side faces, and the cases and reasons for exemplary integration, religious tolerance, and freedom of expression. By bringing together diverse case studies from Europe, Africa, and Asia, this book offers insight into the nature of state engagement with Muslim communities and Muslim community responses towards the state, in turn. This collection offers readers the opportunity to learn more about what drives government policy on Muslim minority communities, Muslim community policies and responses in turn, and where common ground lies in building religious tolerance, greater community cohesion and enhancing Muslim community-state relations.

Conference on Christian Responses to Persecution (Rome, December 10-12)

A reminder that “Under Caesar’s Sword,” a joint research project of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Notre Dame and the Berkeley Center at Georgetown, will hold a conference in Rome next month on the Christian responses to persecution:

The main objective of the conference is to introduce the results of the world’s first systematic global investigation into the responses of Christian communities to the violation of their religious freedom. The scope of Under Caesar’s Sword extends to some 100 beleaguered Christian communities in around 30 countries….

The conference will feature plenary speakers from among the world’s most respected advocates of religious freedom. It will offer a lively discussion of the global persecution of Christians among church leaders, government officials, scholars, human rights activists, representatives of world religions, students, and the interested public. Finally, the conference will shed light on the experiences of millions of Christians worldwide whose religious freedom is severely violated.

Details about the conference, co-sponsored by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, are here.

Shavit, “Shari’a and Muslim Minorities”

This month, Oxford University Press will release “Shari’a and Muslim Minorities: The Wasati and Salafi Approaches to Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat al-Muslima” by Uriya Shavit (Tel Aviv University). The publisher’s description follows:

Based on a comparative analysis of several hundred religio-juristic treatises and fatwas (religious decisions), Shari’a and Muslim Minorities: The Wasati and Salafi Approaches to Fiqh al-Aqalliyyat al-Muslima offers the most systematic and comprehensive study to date of fiqh al aqalliyyat al-Muslima – the field in Islamic jurisprudence that treats issues that are unique to Muslims living in majority non-Muslim societies. The book argues that two main contesting approaches to fiqh al-aqalliyyat al-Muslima, the wasati and the salafi, have developed, in part dialectically. While both envision a future Islamizing of the West as a main justification for Muslim residence in the West, the wasati approach is pragmatic, facilitating, and integration-minded, whereas the salafi calls for strict application of religious norms and for introversion.

The volume examines diverse and highly-debated juristic issues, including the permissibility of naturalizing in non-Muslim states, participating in their electoral systems and serving in their militaries and police forces; the permissibility of taking mortgages and student loans; the permissibility of congratulating Christians on Christmas or receiving Christmas bonuses; and the permissibility of working in professions that involve breaching of religio-legal prohibitions (e.g. serving pork). Discussions highlight the diversity within contemporary Islamic jurisprudence and introduce new nuances to highly-charged concepts such as proselytizing, integration, and multiculturalism.

Slighting Syria’s Christians

Take a look at the photo above, which appeared recently on Instagram. It’s the photo of a page from the New Testament — Acts 25, which recounts St. Paul’s trial before Festus. The page, seared into a bookshelf, is all that remains of the Bible that once contained it. ISIS recently burned the Bible, along with the Armenian Orthodox Church that held it, in Tal Abyad, Syria. The page is written in Armenian characters, but in the Turkish language, which suggests the Bible was once the possession of refugees from the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Survivors of that Genocide founded the town of Tal Abyad 100 years ag0.

I thought of this photograph while reading Nina Shea’s searing assessment, in yesterday’s National Review Online, of the US’s treatment of Syrian Christian refugees. In the past five years of the Syrian civil war, she writes, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Christian refugees from Syria. Fifty-three! When one considers that at the start of the conflict Christians made up 10% of the country’s population of 23 million, and that ISIS and other Islamist groups have made Christians special targets, the minuscule number of Christian refugees the US has admitted is truly shocking.

Shea says there are two explanations. First, the US has generally been reluctant to admit any refugees from Syria. Second, the US relies on the UN to process and refer applications for asylum from its own refugee and resettlement camps. But Christians and other religious minorities are reluctant to use the UN camps, which are infiltrated by ISIS operatives:

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

There are other explanations as well. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, is reluctant to appear too solicitous of Christian refugees. The concern is that singling out Christians would cause our allies in the region to view our humanitarian efforts as sectarian. We should get over this concern. Our allies view us as sectarian, anyway. And it’s not like our strategy of projecting even-handedness has won us much support till now.

This is a complicated situation. Many Christian leaders do not want their flocks to leave their homes in Syria, where Christians have lived for many centuries. And other religious minorities are also dying in Syria, as well as Muslims. But, for many Christians, escape to the West is the only viable option. And Christians have suffered disproportionately in Syria and deserve more help from the US than they are receiving. Shea’s piece is worth reading in its entirety. You can find it here.