When Donald Trump takes office on January 20, he will inherit a raft of foreign policy problems from his predecessor. Russia is again an ascendant power, with geopolitical ambitions that reach deep into Asia and ever more westward into Europe. New footholds in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria will allow Iran, the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, to continue “exporting” the Islamic Revolution to its neighbors. Meanwhile, its revolutionary proxy, Hezbollah, sits at Israel’s northern border and remains a serious conventional threat to Israel, especially now with Bashar al-Assad consolidating power and returning stability to Syria.
There’s also Israel itself. Under President Obama, U.S. relations with the Middle East’s only democracy reached a historic nadir. Obama’s shameful decision to secretly orchestrate and then abstain from vetoing a one-sided UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements will only embolden Israel’s enemies and further derail peace efforts in the region. The incoming Trump administration now confronts a double hurdle with Israel: repairing a key strategic partnership that fractured deeply under Obama, and returning both Israel and the Palestinians to meaningful negotiations over the two-state solution. The first hurdle is surmountable in the short term. The second is not. The damage has been done, and it will take the next four years (at least) to undo it.
Then there’s Syria, a place where the United States drew phantom red lines and stood by as the region’s two ascendant powers—Russia and Iran—made successful power plays, slaughtering thousands of Syrian civilians, including women and children, in the process. The civil war in Syria has triggered the worst global migration crisis since World War II, and its destabilizing effects will be felt across the world for years. Meanwhile, Iran has been relocating Iraqi Shiite families to Damascus neighborhoods abandoned by Sunnis during the fighting—a resettlement project that really is illegal but doesn’t even register on the UN’s radar.
Finally, the problem of radical Islam and the terrorism it spawns remain. Islamic State (ISIS) is perhaps the most visible and salient threat. Even as its short-lived, self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria shrinks, its terrorist tentacles are reaching across the world, as the recent attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt, the Christmas market in Berlin, and a nightclub in Istanbul soberly remind us.
Amidst these global and regional convulsions, one affected group remains relatively powerless and largely ignored: Middle Eastern Christians.
Wiping Christians off the Middle Eastern map
The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity, and the Christian presence there stretches back two millennia. The Coptic and Syriac Churches in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq are the oldest Christian communities on earth. Indeed, Syriac Christians continue to speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Today, these ancient peoples face the very real threat of elimination from the lands that gave them birth and nurtured their faith. In the past decade, the Christian populations of Iraq and Syria have been decimated by war, terrorism, and genocide. In 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq. Today there are only 300,000, many of them still displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, unable to return to their homes because of the devastation wrought by ISIS.
Since 2011, some two-thirds of the Christian population of Syria has fled the country, and only about 500,000 remain there. In Aleppo alone, a once-vibrant community of Christians has dwindled from 250,000 to barely over 30,000.
Coptic Christians, who make up just 10 percent of Egypt’s population, face ongoing persecution. They are targets of terror, social and legal discrimination, and the kind of sickening, dehumanizing canards that make them vulnerable to pogroms by their neighbors.
And it’s not just Christian populations that have been decimated. Churches and other religious property across Syria and Iraq have been wiped out. As of March 2016, when my colleagues and I published a report on “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East,” I looked at churches, monasteries, and convents attacked or destroyed in Iraq and Syria, counting 119 in Iraq since 2004 and 63 in Syria since 2011. More recently, ISIS’s deadly attack in December 2016 on a chapel adjoining St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo—the Coptic Church’s “Vatican”—struck at the very heart of Egyptian Christianity.
No community can thrive under these conditions. If Christianity is to survive in the Middle East—and it must survive—Christian communities must be restored to their homes and lands. Their churches and property must be rebuilt. They must be guaranteed physical security, economic opportunity, and political equality. But they live in a region where all of these are in short supply.
Three recommendations for President-elect Trump
Obama has shown little interest in the plight of Christians in the Middle East, an indifference mirrored in mainstream media outlets, which gave scant coverage to Christian persecution over the past few years. One bright spot came in March of last year when Secretary of State John Kerry, on the heels of pressure from activist groups, officially used the term “genocide” to describe ISIS’s campaign of horrific murders, forced conversions, displacement, and enslavement of Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
Secretary Kerry’s genocide declaration was historic, and a laudable step in the right direction. In itself, though, it accomplished little, and the Obama administration showed almost no interest in following up with concrete efforts to assist persecuted peoples.
The Trump administration must do better, and it must act promptly. Here are three things President Trump can do to help Christians and other persecuted peoples in the Middle East.
First, appoint a Special Adviser for International Religious Freedom to the National Security Council.
The Special Adviser position was created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) and is supposed to play a critical role advising executive branch officials, acting as a liaison among the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Congress, and religious NGOs, and making policy recommendations on religious freedom issues. But the position has sat vacant for years.
In December 2016, Congress passed and the President signed the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which updates the 1998 IRFA and, through various provisions, requires that religious freedom considerations be integrated into every aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The new law also strengthens the Special Adviser position by authorizing him or her to coordinate international religious freedom policy “throughout the executive branch.”
Religious freedom abroad is key to advancing U.S. international interests and the global good because countries that respect freedom of conscience also tend to value human dignity, equality, and the rule of law. Religious pluralism can promote peace and stability, and the biggest beneficiaries are religious minorities.
By appointing a Special Adviser for International Religious Freedom to his National Security Council, President Trump can elevate the status of religious freedom concerns within the executive branch and ensure that persecuted minorities, in the Middle East and elsewhere, are not forgotten sidebars in the foreign policy conversation.
Second, urge Congress to pass, then sign, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act.
ISIS members who have committed, directed, and incited genocide against Christians, Yezidis, and Shia Muslims are criminals, and they must be held criminally responsible. This starts with the collection and preservation of evidence of their crimes. When Secretary Kerry made the genocide declaration last year, he said the United States would “strongly support efforts to collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities” and would “do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.”
The Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), puts teeth to that commitment. The bill would require the State Department to financially support organizations conducting criminal investigations (including evidence gathering and preservation of chain of custody) regarding genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Iraq and Syria. Evidence-gathering efforts are absolutely critical, and without funding for them, key evidence will be forever lost.
Rep. Smith’s bill also calls for an assessment of the financial needs of entities, including faith-based entities, providing on-the-ground assistance to victims of the atrocities—setting the stage for concrete U.S. aid to churches, religious groups, and other NGOs working for the health, well-being, and geographic restoration of Christians in the Middle East.
With bipartisan support and endorsements from each of the prior U.S. Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act is a prime candidate for early across-the-aisle cooperation. As President, Trump should champion this bill and urge Congress to pass it quickly.
Finally, demand that the UN include Christians in any genocide declaration.
There are reports that the UN Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide plans to recommend prosecutions of ISIS for the crime of genocide—but not for genocide against Christians. This means, in effect, that Christian victims will have no judicial redress for the atrocities committed against them, their family members, and their property. Their prospects for justice in the courts of their home countries are dim. And if the UN gets its way, whatever international tribunal addresses these crimes will categorically exclude the Christians. It also means Christians will be passed over for humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance.
This is profoundly wrong and a mockery of justice. Over the past two and a half years, ISIS has singled out Christians for extermination and brutal persecution throughout the Middle East—precisely because they are Christians. The genocidal pattern of ISIS atrocities is well-documented, and it continues even now. Indeed, the group’s recent terror attacks in Cairo, Berlin, and Istanbul were directed specifically at Christians.
The UN’s invidious bias against Christians (not to mention Israel) cannot be tolerated any more. As President, Trump must demand that the UN include Christians in any genocide declarations, recommendations for prosecution, and international aid. If the UN persists with these one-sided decisions, the United States should seriously reconsider its level of support for certain UN institutions. The Trump administration can also push for Security Council resolutions establishing an ad hoc criminal tribunal or even referring the matter to the International Criminal Court for investigation and prosecution.
The plight of Christians in the Middle East today is heart-wrenching. We can’t continue to turn a blind eye to their suffering. Having already recognized an ongoing Christian genocide, the U.S. government must now put its money where its mouth is and take concrete steps to support these communities, alleviate their suffering, and bring the perpetrators to justice. While these efforts certainly contribute to a broader project of regional stability, beyond doubt they will determine whether Christianity will survive in the region that gave it birth.
Ian Speir is an attorney to churches and religious organizations, chancellor to an Anglican diocese, and coauthor of the “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East” report submitted to Secretary Kerry on March 9, 2016. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo Credit: Cherubim Monastery atop a mountain overlooking Sidnaya, Syria, which has been a Christian pilgrimage site for centuries. By Tarek Zein, via Flickr.