A Message for Easter/Passover: Saving Christians in Muslim Lands from a New Holocaust
Jo Ann Gardner
Jo Ann Gardner is the author of Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants. She can be reached through her website: www.joanngardnerbooks.com.
Update: On March 17, after coming under increased pressure from Congress, and from reports submitted by the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians, Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East. This decision, however, does not obligate the U.S. to take additional action against ISIS nor does it prejudge prosecution against its members. Nor is there any guarantee that it would result in creating safe zones for them in the Middle East or helping them to immigrate to the U.S. These people still very much need our voices raised on their behalf as outlined below. We have seen, from Kerry’s decision, that this has an effect.
We have been living a nightmare. Christianity in Iraq is bleeding . . . we are extremely exhausted . . . every day we hope tomorrow will be better, but our tomorrows seem to bring only more tears and more hardship. . . . When will you rescue us?— An elderly woman in Iraq to Johnnie Moore, chief of staff of the Cradle Fund to rescue endangered Christians and other minorities in the Middle East.
Last Christmas I came upon an online article posted by the American Jewish Committee blog, Virtual Global Forum, entitled “This Christmas.” It was accompanied by a photo of a displaced little Middle Eastern girl with black eyes and a smile that struck deep into my Jewish heart. Here, in part, is its message:
As the world prepares to mark Christmas 2015, we’re saddened by the steady decline of Christian communities in the Middle East, where Christianity began and where Christians have lived for centuries. A century ago about 14 percent of all residents of the Middle East were Christians; today they make up just 4 percent. . . . Even in Lebanon, a country whose borders and governmental system were set so that Christians could be assured a share of power and influence, the Christian share of the population has declined from 78 percent to 34 percent.
Throughout the region, disintegration of previously stable countries and the violent rise of radical Islam have affected all people — Muslims, Christians, others — but it is the 2015 Christmas reality that Christianity is disappearing in many places where Christian history dates back to the founding centuries of the faith . . .
After detailing the persecution of Christians in Iraq as well as the state-sponsored persecution of Christians and other minorities in Iran, now benefiting from the millions of dollars we have released to them as part of Obama’s deal, the blog ends with this hope:
This Christmas, join our pledge to spread awareness about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and beyond so that next Christmas, the world will be a more tolerant place.
It’s well past Christmas and we’re now in the season of Jews celebrating redemption from slavery in Egypt and Christians remembering the resurrection of Jesus. The suffering continues:
Here’s Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute:
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 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 Qaryatain and Nineveh’s fourth-century Mar Behnam monastery.
The situation in Syria is also horrendous. Its Christian population has been decimated by what Pope Francis has called religious genocide. Last November, Nina Shea reported that:
Tens of thousands of Aleppo’s 160,000 Christians have fled to Lebanon, after a thousand of their community, including two Orthodox bishops, were abducted and murdered.
Yet President Obama described as “shameful” the idea suggested by Ted Cruz that the United States should accept only Christian refugees while Muslim refugees are sent to majority-Muslim countries (as far as I know he and Jeb Bush are the only Republican candidates to address this crisis). Whatever one thinks about admitting Middle East refugees, Christians and other minorities in the region pose no terrorist threat and are, according to many reports, persecuted with the intention of their extinction. Why can’t we face this problem and deal with it rationally? Genocide is genocide and shouldn’t be subject to a religious test. When Obama rejects calls to admit specifically Christian and minority refugees from the Middle East by saying, as he has done, that it’s “not American. That’s not who we are,” does that mean that we must close the door to suffering Christians because they are Christians?
According to Nina Shea, Obama and other leaders shy away from relevant religious labels as if “Christians are the oppressors and they can’t be victims.”
The State Department’s public records show that while Christians from the various Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions represent 10 percent of the population, they constitute only 2.6 percent of the 2003 Syrian refugees the U.S. has accepted during the past five years of Syria’s civil war.
That is, 53 Syrian Christians, one Yazidi, and a handful of other minorities.
Is this who we are?
My gut reaction to this suffering is involuntary. Jews have long lived in adversity and suffered persecution. Helping endangered Jews is bred in our bones, an article of Jewish faith known as Pidyon Shevuyim, “redeeming captives.” In Jewish history, unfortunately, this principle has worked overtime, from the days of the Bible (Gen. 14:14-16) to the rescue by Israel of entire threatened Jewish communities in the Middle East (49,000 from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, 1949-50; 120,000-130,000 from Iraq, 1951-52), to the lopsided prisoner exchanges in Israel. When, how, and whether to put this principle into practice in various situations (including the openly debated prisoner swap) has generated an entire literature.
The lack of any such response on behalf of persecuted Christians in America is especially striking in a country in which about 70 percent of the U.S. population calls itself Christian by belief. As Elliot Abrams observed this would mean more than 200 million people, “a potential pressure group if it ever got mobilized.”
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 [or 2016] to understand. (“Why Do We Not Save Christians?” Oct. 12, 2015, The Weekly Standard.)
ISIS and other radical Islamists are not the first to target the Christian population. Since the Islamic conquest of the 7th century, Christians have lived as a minority at the sufferance of Muslim rulers, tolerated, like Jews, as second-class citizens, paying a special tax, their condition prospering or worsening depending on the rulers of the day. In the 14th century, 70,000 Assyrian Christians were beheaded in Tikrit, 90,000 more in Baghdad. During World War One, 65 percent of the Assyrian populations of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northeast Syria, and northwest Iran were massacred. They, along with 1.5 million Christian Armenians and 300,000 Christian Greeks were burned, slaughtered, and systematically murdered.
And the slaughter continues.
Whatever policy our country pursues regarding admitting Middle East refugees, we must face the fact that most Christians do not wind up in the UN sponsored refugee camps from which refugees are drawn for resettlement because they are fearful of living in close, unprotected conditions with the Muslims who make up the vast majority of inhabitants. Shea reports that in Britain, where the House of Lords debated the issue, it was noted that many Christian refugees will not be included in the UN camp referrals because they have had to leave the camps after the cruelties inflicted upon them. These include assassinations and abductions. Christians and others try to find church-run camps, not as numerous, the UN ones, nor as well funded.
Some countries in Europe have declared a preference for Christian refugees, especially after the New Year’s Eve raping and robbing by young Muslim men of women on the streets of Cologne and other places in Germany. These include Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland. Last December, the Jewish News Service posted an article about the then 96-year old British-Jewish publisher, Lord Weidenfeld [he died in January 2016], whose Weidenfeld Fund, through the Barnabas Fund and Operation Safe Havens, pledges to rescue 2,000 Syrian and Iraqi Christians. He had a debt to repay, he said, to endangered Christians for the work of Christian groups in saving Jewish children in Germany, 1938-1940, by bringing them to safety in England, as well as a personal debt in helping to save him and his parents. He had recently flown 150 Syrian Christians to Poland and more to the Czech Republic. Some countries, including ours, have refused to participate in this project. Why? Because it is supported by the regime of Syrian President Assad and because it is not “inclusive” — it does not aim to help Muslims who are also being terrorized by radical Islamists.
So if we cannot help to save these people because “that is not who we are,” can anything be done to help them?
American Evangelicals have been at the forefront of efforts to rescue members of the suffering eastern churches, despite the fact that Evangelicals are only a tiny fraction of the Middle East Christian population. Mainline Protestant churches have been largely absent from this effort. Sad to say, the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, and most recently, the United Methodist Church are too busy vilifying Israel to have any energy left for other matters. All have joined the shameful BDS movement to boycott, disinvest, and sanction Israel, the only country in the Middle East where Christians are safe. It seems that the powers that be in these mainstream institutions would rather hate Jews than love Christians, the exception being the Methodists who seem able to do both (see below).
Here’s a sampling of efforts to help endangered Christians and other minorities:
* The Cradle Fund (cradlefund.org) was established in 2014 with the goal of raising 25 million dollars to provide immediate humanitarian relief on the ground where it is most needed, in the form of food, shelter, and clothing.
* In 2013 a bill was introduced into the House of Representatives by Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) to create a special envoy at the State Department, charged with focusing exclusively on the plight of religious minorities in South Central Asia and the Middle East. The bill passed the House by a vote of 402 to 22. Approved by the Senate, it passed into law when it was signed by President Obama in August, 2014. As far as I know, an envoy has yet to be appointed.
* In April, 2015, the Washington-based International Religious Freedom Roundtable sent a letter to the President urging him to appoint the special envoy, calling the plight of Middle East Christians and religious minorities the “biggest humanitarian crisis we now face.” It was signed by Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore and various individuals, including Nina Shea, as well as organizations such as the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Methodist Church, and the Universal Muslim Association of America.
* In September of 2015, a group called “In Defense of Christians,” a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization held its inaugural national leadership convention to raise awareness of the plight of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere. Part of its mission is to urge governments to take in Middle Eastern Christians fleeing religious persecution, and to make the region safer for those who want to stay. Among the five Democrats and twelve Republicans who spoke at this event were Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Representatives included Chris Smith (R-NJ), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
The media has covered the plight of Middle East Christians and other minorities in detail, among them the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, National Review, and The Weekly Standard, to name a few. We cannot claim ignorance of what is going on, but do we have the will to do anything about it?
Here are some suggestions: educate yourself — the material is out there on the internet — discuss the issue with your spiritual leaders and congregations (use this editorial as a starting point), demand action from your representatives in Congress, and give to the Cradle Fund.
When I read the first published study of the Holocaust (Nora Levin’s The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry 1933-1945, 1973), I was devastated, not by the cruelty of the Nazis and their helpers, but by the world’s indifference. Dare we, on our watch, do nothing about the genocide happening before us when we know right now what is occurring?
In this spring season of celebrating renewal and rebirth, remember those who cannot speak for themselves and let your voices be heard. Do not abandon these people. *