DEA / ARCHIVIO J. LANGE via Getty Images Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
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Brian Katulis, Senior
Fellow, Center for American Progress
Prodromou, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
week, Christians around the world mark the holiest week in their religious
calendar, observing the Passion, crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus in
Jerusalem. This sober time of reflection and prayer comes in the midst of
continued threats to Christians in the Middle East – most recently in the Palm Sunday
bombings at two churches in Egypt claimed by ISIS.
the past decade, some of the oldest Christian communities have been
disappearing from the lands where the faith was born and first took root.
A combination of violence and discrimination has driven Christians to migrate
abroad for physical security and better educational and economic opportunities.
Christians have been targeted by terrorist groups like ISIS and devastated by
the region’s civil wars. In addition, deeply rooted discrimination against
Christians and other non-Muslims institutionalized in the legal codes and
official practices of most Middle Eastern countries is another factor leading
to the declining Christian presence.
United States alone cannot stop these trends – but acknowledging them and
taking modest steps to address the underlying problems will be important as the
United States steps up its engagement in the Middle East. U.S. action on this
front is more than a matter of altruistic goodwill; it’s an important part of a
long-term stabilization strategy for the Middle East.
challenges for Christians in the Middle East vary significantly across
countries, but there is one common thread related to overall stability: poor
governance. Islamist extremist groups have exploited weaknesses in the rule of
law to target Christians and secular authoritarians have cultivated the
marginalization and erasure of Christian communities.
eradication of Christians and their religious sites amounts to “memoricide” –
erasing any living presence and memory footprint of Christians in their
homelands. Turkey’s president reported plans to hold Muslim prayers inside the
Byzantine Orthodox Cathedral of Aghia Sophia this coming Good Friday is
one example of active efforts to erase Christian heritage and patrimony.
actions by authoritarian leaders and terrorist groups have contributed to the
problem of state failure and collapse in the Middle East, a global security
threat. The 9/11 attacks and the spread of Islamist extremist ideologies,
and the massive human flows across the Mediterranean in the world’s worst
refugee crisis since the Second World War, is directly linked to the failure of
states to protect the rights of all its citizens, particularly persecuted
religious groups. Greater respect for religious pluralism and freedom is
a key component to long-term stability.
U.S. military’s current tactical and operational escalation in Syria, Iraq, and
other parts of the Middle East will not stop state fragmentation without a
long-term engagement strategy that takes seriously the fact that religious
pluralism matters for state legitimacy and socio-economic stability. This
doesn’t mean direct nation-building by the United States – but it does mean
ending the tendency to see religious freedom as a boutique policy issue and
integrating it in our diplomacy.
course, Christian communities are just one of many religious communities that
need to be part of peace-building and post-conflict stabilization in Iraq and
Syria. In Syria, many Christians cling to the Assad regime despite its
brutality, out of fear for what might come next. Next door in Iraq, the
Christian community was decimated by the ongoing war. To help these
countries achieve long-term stability, the United States must engage other
religious communities whose commitments to equality, freedom, and universal
human rights can reinforce stability in the region. Legal frameworks and
institutional arrangements that demand state accountability to all citizens can
help resolve societal differences – a key ingredient for peace processes.
few days after entering office, President Trump told the Christian Broadcasting
Network that Christians in the Middle East have been “horribly treated,” and
“We’re going to help them.” But President Trump’s proposal to drastically cut
funding for the State Department and other development assistance would
undermine America’s ability to help on this front. Meanwhile, his broader
refugee ban undermines America’s influence and moral authority, and reduces the
overall number of people fleeing persecution and trying to come to the United
Trump should take concrete steps to follow up on the U.S. State Department’s
designation made in March of last year that ISIS was committing genocide,
including providing funding and support for tools necessary to investigate and
prosecute war crimes and acts of genocide. Trump should also revisit the
proposed State Department budget and develop practical mechanisms for helping
post-conflict stabilization efforts that include religious pluralism and
freedom as a priority.
are organic to the fabric of religious diversity that made the Middle East a
civilizational crucible of intellectual dynamism and economic innovation as far
back as Roman and Byzantine times. This historical energy and diversity
can be resurrected.
Katulis is a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American
Progress. Elizabeth Prodromou, a visiting associate professor of
negotiation and conflict resolution at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
at Tufts University, is also a senior fellow at the Center for American