An advocacy group for Middle Eastern Christians showed strong support at its conference last week — though views of its members were hardly uniform.
At a press event Thursday for the group In Defense of Christians, South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney recounted how he met a bishop from the region last summer. According to Mulvaney, he said, “Don’t make it easier for us to get in to the U.S.” — because it was worth encouraging Christians to stay in lands where they had flourished for 1,500 years. But more recently, another cleric he met fell to his knees, imploring, “Please help us get out, or they’re going to kill us.”
Mulvaney is among the cosponsors of a House resolution to formally recognize Islamic State’s purge of Christians from Syria and Iraq as a genocide, a step that IDC supports. He was speaking to an audience largely composed of Christians with recent family ties to Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern hotspots. (RELATED: Congressmen Push To Call ISIS Atrocities A Christian ‘Genocide’)
Countless difficult questions surround the topic of the Middle East’s vulnerable Christians: should the U.S. be working to protect their historic homeland or facilitate their flight to safety in America? Is the U.S. picking the wrong allies in Syria and Iraq? And what is the role of local Christian communities in American strategy to fight Islamic State?
At IDC’s banquet Friday, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Younan suggested that “supporting the national armies of Syria and Iraq” was a key component in protecting those countries’ Christian communities.
President Bashar al Assad’s government in Syria has been accused of cynically engineering the rise of Islamic State and other terrorists by targeting non-radical rebel groups. Christians and other vulnerable minorities therefore see Assad as their only hope for survival, despite his indiscriminate war crimes conducted over the last four-and-a-half years. (RELATED: Syrian Regime Bombing Kills 100 Civilians In Suburban Market)
Younan’s line was the most eyebrow-raising suggestion in remarks that also included condemnation of Saudi Arabia, along with allegations that the U.S. is currently arming terrorist militias. He also pushed for “a strong, courageous intervention” in Syria.
Not all of IDC’s supporters and guests held to Younan’s views. In introducing Younan, Brooklyn-based Maronite Catholic bishop Gregory Mansour stressed that those in attendance had a wide variety of religions and political ideologies but were united by their desire for “solidarity, communion and defiance” in the face of Islamic State and other threats to Middle East Christians. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: How ‘Built To Stay’ May Be What Keeps Christians In World’s Most Oppressive Region [VIDEO])
Others also echoed Patriarch Younan’s criticism of Saudi Arabia, and the often-rigid U.S. support of the regime there. Thursday’s event on Capitol Hill saw the most applause when members of Congress suggested suspending American aid to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other wealthy Gulf states. Many of those countries are accused of covertly backing Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate as well as other violent Islamist groups in the war.
Conspiracy theories about Washington’s covert Middle Eastern goals are not uncommon in the region. Christians with roots in the region harbor the overwhelming impression that America is ignoring their plight, and based on their experiences, it’s a tough conclusion to dismiss.
One popular step that IDC supporters advocated is for the White House to appoint a special envoy — a top-level diplomat specifically tasked with solving the crisis facing Middle East religious minorities. President Barack Obama signed a law in August 2014 creating the position, after a long Congressional battle, but has not moved to fill the position since its creation.
The refugee crisis that faces Europe today was also a recurring topic, with many expressing relief at the U.S.’ recent announcement that it would take in 10,000 Syrians in 2016.
But some insisted that there be a mechanism to fast-track Christians and other religious minorities, who are among the most vulnerable and excluded in both Syria and Iraq. In his remarks, Rep. Mulvaney claimed that the Chaldeans in the U.S., a Christian community with ancestral ties to Iraq, had over 50,000 names of candidates for asylum held up for bureaucratic reasons.
IDC’s supporters and allies hope that the recently-introduced genocide resolution, and the upcoming visit of Pope Francis, will publicize the urgency of Middle East Christians’ plight. But it remains unclear whether their concerns will translate into coherent policy and government action.
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