They Need Help, And They Have No Good Place To Go
The Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) liturgy, just followed in synagogues around the world, repeats several times references to God as one who rescues captives. The central daily Jewish prayer as well refers to God who “supports the fallen, heals the sick, sets captives free.” And throughout Jewish history, the redemption of captives has been considered an important commandment. This is the background to the repeated decisions by the state of Israel to free a hundred or a thousand Arab prisoners in exchange for one single captive Jew. It is also the background to Israel’s actions to rescue the entire Ethiopian and Yemeni Jewish communities by bringing them to Israel.
The rescue of threatened Jewish communities has been a central public purpose of Jews living in safety. American Jews pressed their government to push back against repression in Morocco in the 19th century and in czarist Russia in the early 20th. They failed to get the doors open for many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but they tried—despite rampant antisemitism, not least in the State Department. They succeeded in opening the doors of Soviet Russia, whence a million Jews fled to Israel.
It is in that context that the failure of the United States and the countries of Western Europe—all of which have overwhelming Christian majorities in their populations—to protect or to accept as refugees many Middle Eastern Christians (and other minorities, such as the Yazidis and Baha’i) is worth exploring. To be sure, Jews have been an oppressed and endangered minority for a couple of thousand years, so the habits of rescue are deeply ingrained in liturgy and in communal life. Christians have had two pretty good millennia, and the idea that there are Christian communities being destroyed, and Christians being enslaved, raped, and murdered because of their faith, may be hard for many Christians in the year 2015 to understand.
Nevertheless, it is true. Evangelical churches reacted powerfully in the 1990s to the persecution of Christians in Sudan, and American policy there was more activist than it would have been had they stayed silent. But in the last decade ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been ravaged. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has told the story in books and articles, such as this portion of a recent National Review article:
ISIS and other Islamist extremists are waging genocide, the most egregious of all human-rights atrocities, against Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, and other defenseless religious minorities. . . . Similar to Jews under Nazi domination during World War II, the Christians and other minorities in the Middle East today are facing, in addition to the wartime privations suffered by the general population, a relentless and deliberate extermination campaign being carried out in the name of Islamic purification. In the summer of 2014, ISIS launched its caliphate from Mosul by marking Christian homes with the red letter “N,” for “Nazarene,” before confiscating them and exiling their owners. Since then, it has pursued Christians and the other minorities with a systematic intensity intended to delete every trace of their ancient presence. Solely for their religion, Christians and Yazidis have been beheaded, enslaved, abducted and sold, forcibly converted to Islam, and stripped of all their property. Their houses of worship and their cultural artifacts have been expropriated or demolished, including the fifth-century monastery in Qaraytain and Nineveh’s fourth-century Mar Behnam monastery.
The facts are not really in doubt. Christians form decent-sized minorities in Egypt and Lebanon, and tiny minorities elsewhere in the Middle East. Today those communities are (except, of course, in Israel) under great risk—especially in Iraq and Syria—and thousands are fleeing for their lives. So put aside for the moment the issue of additional military intervention in the Middle East to protect them, and ask instead why we and the Europeans do not at least rescue Christians who are fleeing. In the current European refugee crisis, only Hungary’s repellent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has said that the West should do so. “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim. . . . That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots,” he wrote. Donald Tusk, the Pole who is president of the European Council, rebuked Orbán and said, “Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”
So, no special treatment for Christians. U.S. policy follows the same pattern—in theory, anyway. In practice Christians may actually have a harder time getting into the United States. Nina Shea points out that the United States accepts only refugees referred to it by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, but Christian and other religious minority refugees often fear registering with the UNHCR and living in its camps because of their overwhelming Muslim majorities. Whether those fears are well-founded is not the point, which is instead that reliance on UNHCR referrals guarantees an under-representation of religious minorities in our refugee inflow. Moreover, the State Department appears to favor a definition of refugees as people persecuted by their government. That is a test Sunnis in Iraq and Syria may be able to meet, but Christians will not: They are persecuted by various Muslim groups such as the Islamic State rather than by the regimes in power. On such distinctions do lives depend.
The Orbán-Tusk debate has not been reflected in much public discussion in the United States. There are calls from Christian groups to do more in aiding Christian refugees, but there is no great public controversy here about the subject. Why not?
A New York Times story last summer entitled “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” reported that two-thirds of Iraqi Christians had fled their homeland, as well as a third of Syria’s Christians. But the story added, “It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents—Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal—to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘clash of civilizations’ narratives the West is accused of embracing.” When finally in 2014 the United States did act to save an endangered religious minority, it was the Yazidis in Iraq. Christians got no such favored treatment.
As that Times story suggested, fear of strengthening the “crusader” narrative no doubt plays a part in such decisions. Let’s even grant that Western Europe is “post-Christian”: Regular church attendance is down around the 10 percent level. But that’s not true in the United States, where churches are full of worshipers, not tourists, on Sundays and where an admission of atheism would doom any presidential candidate.
One argument against rescuing Christians is that their communities in the Middle East date from the time of Jesus and are ancient, beautiful, meaningful, historic. So it would be a shame and a tragedy were those communities destroyed, or reduced in size to the point that they fell apart. All true, and all irrelevant. The Christian refugees from those places did not decide to leave their homes because they are uninterested in history or architecture, or because they suddenly lost touch with their roots. They fled in fear of their lives. To put them at a disadvantage because of the historic character of the places from which they flee is to ask them to sacrifice their lives, their children, and their futures because we admire their pasts. It is an immoral position.
A sense of fairness and unfairness must also play a role in our failure to single out Christians. The main counter-argument will be that this is discrimination against Muslims, for when one takes group A he is necessarily excluding group B. Not so, and a policy of excluding Muslims from our refugee programs would be unlawful and hateful. And even if the Europeans are afraid that new Muslim populations will never integrate and assimilate, in the United States we need not share those fears. Unlike Europe, we have no Muslim ghettoes here, and the history of Muslim immigrants is a successful one. The question is not whether our refugee program should continue to accept members of all religious groups, but whether we can take notice of the special horrors faced by Middle Eastern Christians. All the refugees seem to be pitiful, and have fled their homes and roots to live in miserable refugee camps or even train stations. How could we in good faith distinguish among the refugees on the basis of religion?
Here’s how: Christians are not random victims of widespread violence, disorder, or economic collapse. Unlike their Muslim neighbors, they are targets. And unlike their neighbors, they cannot flee to neighboring countries where their co-religionists are in the majority and where prejudice and discrimination against them on the basis of religion will be absent. In fact, most of the migrants in the flood going to Europe these days likely do not qualify as refugees under international law. Escaping war or economic disaster, or trying for a better life for one’s family, does not meet the definition. Consider our own refugee and asylum laws, in which targeting is the main idea. Overall conditions of disorder or lawlessness back home will not get an applicant approved; only deliberate targeting for persecution (racial, religious, political, or any other kind) will meet the test. The Immigration and Nationality Act says asylum requires a “well-founded fear of persecution,” a test many Muslim migrants would not meet but Christians from Iraq and Syria certainly would.
Middle Eastern Christians are the targets of special venom and live with special risks, so why is it unthinkable to give them special consideration for resettlement in the United States? The United States has singled out special groups before, such as Cubans fleeing the Castro regime and Jews fleeing Soviet Russia. It’s a simple fact that they got better treatment than many other refugees because their brethren in this country deeply believed it was needed and was just, so they demanded it and organized to get it from our political system. And they won. Remarkably, there are only about five million Jews in the United States and roughly two million Cuban Americans. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly 70 percent of the U.S. population calls itself Christian by belief, which would mean more than 200 million people. That’s quite a large potential pressure group—if it ever got mobilized.
The ancient Jewish sage Hillel famously asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Jewish communities, long accustomed to living under (mostly Christian) threat, have for two millennia understood the need to organize to protect their endangered brethren elsewhere, but that understanding has not yet become very widespread among American Christians.
Oddly, that was not true two centuries ago—when the Barbary pirates made a practice of capturing Christian slaves and selling them into the Ottoman slave markets. The United States paid ransoms and tribute, but also used its new navy to rescue Christians from captivity. In 1803, when Stephen Decatur bravely led a mission to destroy the captured American frigate USS Philadelphia, Pope Pius VII said this action “had done more for the cause of Christianity than the most powerful nations of Christendom have done for ages.” In 1815, the young United States fought the Second Barbary War against pirates in North Africa. The American and British navies forced the locals to release all Christian slaves and prisoners in 1816 (there were over 1,000) and agree to stop the kidnappings. Of course the young United States acted to protect its honor, its commerce and shipping, and its nationals, not in a new crusade against Islam. But actions meant to rescue Christians would no more be a new crusade today than they were 200 years ago.
Today, Christians are under special threat in the Middle East. The possibility that Christian refugees will be able to go home and reconstruct their communities and lead normal lives is far lower than are the chances for their Muslim neighbors. The level of continuing discrimination and physical threat against them is high, and in Syria and Iraq they will always constitute tiny and powerless groups. The argument for reaching out to rescue Christian refugees and those from other threatened religious minorities is clear: They are worse off than their Muslim neighbors. They face special circumstances, of which we should in all fairness take account. To turn away from them because they are Christian and we do not wish to be accused of favoritism toward Christians is a shameful position for Americans—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, atheist—to take.
Originally published by The Weekly Standard on October 12, 2015
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.