This 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.
Over 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.
The 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.
The 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.
The 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.
These 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.
The 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.
Of 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.
A 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 States
Instead, 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.
Christians 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.
Brian 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 Progress.