Religious Freedom: The Basis for Human Rights . . . and the Survival of Christians in the Middle East

 
 

It is time for the international community to respond to the plight of Christians in the middle east. Adapted from an address delivered by the Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch to the 134th Convention of the Knights of Columbus.

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On the night of August 6-7, 2014, one hundred fifty thousand people—some 40 percent of all Christians still living in Iraq—were driven from their ancestral communities. They had nowhere to flee except nearby Kurdistan. Two years have passed since that catastrophic eradication, and still there is no real solution. In Mosul too, Christian and other minority groups were murdered, and women and children were raped and abducted by the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

For five and a half years, the sectarian war in Syria has raged. The devastation in this country is beyond all description. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions are displaced, and the influx of migrants continues to threaten the lives of desperate people, as well as Europe as a whole. It is a hecatomb that has befallen Syria, a country that had one of the most secularized governments in the Middle East.

We, the Church pastors, kept warning Westerners who pretended to have the right to interfere in Syria in the name of democracy that fomenting violence would surely lead to terrible sectarian war because of the complex religious and ethnic diversity in Syria. We knew innocent people, primarily Christians and minorities, would suffer most.

The devastation, killings, and kidnappings have spread all over the country. Syria is now the most dangerous spot on the planet. Half a million Christians are gone. More than 140 churches and ancient monasteries have been desecrated, abandoned, or completely destroyed. Two archbishops were kidnapped three years ago. Their fate is still unknown. Clergy are slaughtered. Civilians are used as human shields. Most of all, Islamic Wahhabism, the worst among radical religious beliefs, is rising and spreading! It is as we warned.

What Can We Do?

This is the question we often hear from our friends in the West.

First, among the Catholic charitable organizations, I would like to warmly thank the Knights of Columbus for their Christian solidarity in supporting the suffering people in Syria and Iraq. Your founder, the Venerable Father Michael J. McGivney, had an inspiring vision of how Catholics would live their Christian calling in a very turbulent and hostile world. The Supreme Knight and his brave assistants have succeeded in raising awareness about the horrible situation facing their Christian brethren, and the devastation of land and ancient civilizations in the Middle East. They have courageously defended the innocents and denounced the abuses of human rights committed by Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Their solidarity and tenacity helped to secure the genocide declaration by the US State Department and votes in both houses of Congress.

It is time to speak with a clear voice, telling the truth without politically correct language, about an abnormality in dealing with the important issue of the religious freedom, not only in your countries but also in the Middle East.

Tell the Truth in Charity

Some countries with Muslim majorities still rule with religion and state joined together. They are allies of the West and enjoy full membership in the UN while refusing a quintessential principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: religious freedom! Why do we wonder at the rise of the Islamic State or its new “Caliphate” when these “allied rich countries”—which have some of the most retrograde systems of government—continue to channel funding and weapons to terrorists spreading hatred and committing barbaric atrocities in the name of a religion? Have we had the courage to consider the aims, goals, and methods of each political, social, or cultural organization based on political Islam, where an amalgamation of religion and politics is quite normal—even a precept?

Look, for example, at the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928. It says: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur'an is our law. Jihad is our way and dying for God is our ultimate desire.” Have we ever asked ourselves about the many interpretations of the word “jihad” as one of the five precepts in Islam? Have we ever heard what today’s “jihadists,” mostly brainwashed youth, were calling for, boasting in cold blood about their aberrant barbarism? And yet, out of political correctness, some politicians, scholars, and media people among us want to find excuses for those “jihadists,” theorizing about socioeconomic and cultural motivations as well as hypothetical grievances and injustice!

Nicholas Kristof wrote last month in The New York Times:

Whenever there is a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists, we look to our enemies like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda. But perhaps we should also look to our ‘friends,’ like Saudi Arabia.

For decades, Saudi Arabia has recklessly financed and promoted a harsh and intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam around the world in a way that is, quite predictably, producing terrorists.

Christians of the Middle East have tried to live and act as peacemakers, tolerant, hard workers and promoters of civilized reforms. However, this seems to be meaningless to powerful nations whose politicians betray their own principles and abandon Christians and other minorities of the Middle East. Western countries are complicit in this violence because they tolerate the mingling of religion and state as practiced in so many Arab countries. It is time to tell the truth in charity.

Three False Attitudes

To help our Muslim brothers and sisters overcome today’s global crises that would undermine their religion, I suggest avoiding the following three false attitudes:

Paternalism: This common attitude in the West toward people of the underdeveloped countries has its roots in considering the latter inferior. It views some people as deserving tolerance, even a pandering attitude, because they are of a different region and culture. Out of exaggerated compassion, there is a tendency to excuse the lack of integration of Muslims in the Western countries. Someone would say: they still need time to rise to the level of Western civilization! Meanwhile, it is said: let us profit from their natural resources!

Opportunism: Oil-rich countries in the Middle East have large majority-Muslim populations ruled by Muslim governments. Economic opportunism seems to be the best way to keep the oil flowing and provide the best trade deals. It is time to stop pandering to those rulers and governments and to start looking for the real good of the peoples of the region.

Mingling Religion and Culture and Politics: Quite often many Westerners confuse Muslim religion and culture. They accept without hesitation the assertion that in Islam there is no way to separate religion and state. Scholars, the media, and politicians in the West do not hesitate to talk about “Muslim political parties,” “Muslim Civilization,” and the “Muslim World.” They are unwilling, however, to mention anything reminding Europe of its history, which was for millennia permeated by Judeo-Christian values!

With these principles in mind, it is time to bring the plight of Christians and all innocent people to the international community: the UN Security Council, the United States of America, the European Union, as well as the Russian Federation and China. Our churches go back to the first Christian communities in their liturgy, traditions, culture, and language. They are now a kind of endangered species that could be wiped out for good. Yes, my friends, the very survival of Christians in the cradle of Christianity is in danger!

His Beatitude Ignatius Joseph III Younan is Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch.

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