On October 31, Islamist extremists took hostage the congregation of Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad and slaughtered 58 men, women and children, wounding 78 others. Most of the slain were worshipers, and two were priests. The tragedy generated a weak response from the Obama administration: Robert Gibbs called it a “senseless act of hostage taking and violence by terrorists linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.”
A much stronger response, however, came from Representatives Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Frank Wolf (R-VA), who wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton less than a week after the tragedy. The letter, signed by nine members of Congress, explained that the attack needed to be understood apart from the broader context of extremist violence in Iraq:
We are concerned that the administration has too often implied, as the previous administration did, that the attacks against Iraq’s religious minorities are only part of a broader pattern of “generalized violence” that plagues Iraq…it is critical that the U.S. government recognize that the religious minority groups have been subject to a specific pattern of violent discrimination, and as such, require a cohesive strategy for their protection and preservation.
The pattern has continued since October and Frank Wolf, who co-chairs both the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, introduced the other week the beginnings of a solution: Bipartisan legislation calling for “the creation of a special envoy at the U.S. State Department for religious minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia.”
“This has not been an issue this administration has spoken out on,” Wolf said in an interview with me. “A special envoy transcends bureaus, and would force the issue within our own government and others. We need to develop a comprehensive policy … which recognizes that these indigenous communities are not simply the victims of generalized violence, but are facing targeted violence which is forcing them to flee the lands they’ve inhabited for centuries.”
Creation of a special envoy for this task would be a way to raise international awareness of the systematic persecution of religious minorities—persecution currently taking place in several Middle Eastern states. It would also show that the administration is serious about addressing the issue.
“Personnel is policy,” said Wolf.
Wolf has spent the months since the October 31 attack compiling research on this persecution, focusing on Iraq and Egypt, and appealing to both the State Department and some of America’s influential Christian leaders to take an active role in raising awareness of the systematic atrocities occurring in the region. “Without awareness,” he told me, “government doesn’t act.”
To provide background for the legislation, Wolf and the Human Rights Commission called a congressional hearing on January 20, which featured testimony from Dina Guirguis, an Egyptian Copt, and Sister Rita, an Iraqi Catholic. Both deplored the current situation for religious minorities in their home countries. Sister Rita testified: “The year 2010 was the most violent for Christians [in Iraq] since the war began.”
Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, also testified at the hearing, and chronicled attack after attack that has been levied on Christian minorities in Iraq and Egypt. A drive-by shooting on the eve of the Coptic Christmas in 2009 killed six Christians and a Muslim guard. The New Year’s Day bombing in Alexandria—a targeted attack on Egypt’s Coptic Christian population—was “the worst sectarian attack targeting Christians in a decade.”
For many years, Egypt’s only response to the murder, and even to massacres, of Christians has been to conduct ‘reconciliation’ sessions between Muslims and Christians in order to ease tensions and resolve disputes. This response is problematic and disturbing. In its 2009 annual human rights report on Egypt, the State Department concluded that these sessions not only “prevented the prosecution of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and precluded their recourse to the judicial system for restitution,” but also “contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults.”
Shea went on to say that “the context is a government that has failed to make the rights of religious minorities a priority,” adding that even “Egypt’s government-controlled media and government-funded mosques have engaged in incitement to violence.”
For Christians in Iraq, the situation was desperate long before the October 31 attack caught international attention. Coordinated attacks began in 2004 with the bombing of five churches in Baghdad and Mosul. In July 2009 seven churches were bombed in Baghdad on a single day. And while Iraq’s pre-war Christian population was only five percent, Iraq’s post-war refugee population is a staggering forty percent Christian.
“In 2003, there were at least 800,000 and as many as 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq,” Shea testified. “It is now estimated that only half of that community remains in the country.”
Attacks against Christians in these two countries, however, are part of a broader picture. Egypt’s is not the only government in the region stained by a failure to defend the rights of its religious minorities. (Lee Smith wrote recently of the intensifying persecution of Christians in the Middle East, with a focus on Lebanon’s Maronites, in a recent issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.)
“Ahmadis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and Jews are under increasing pressure in the region,” Wolf said when he introduced his bill the other week. Several hundred Baha’is have been arrested in Iran, and seven Baha’i religious leaders are currently being held in prison by the Iranian government. Militants in Pakistan attacked two Ahmadi mosques last May, killing at least 80 people. “According to the State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, Zoroastrians living in Iran also face persecution and blatant discrimination.”
Through this legislation, Wolf is bringing greater attention to an issue he believes must be “a foreign policy priority for America.”
Since 2008, the State Department has designated over $25 million for aiding religious minorities in Iraq, which Wolf calls a “much-improved focus.” Focus has not improved across the board, however, and has noticeably decreased in other areas. The office of ambassador-at-large for the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, a presidential appointed position, has been vacant since Obama took office. This position needs to be filled, says Wolf: further steps must be taken, and more direct aid must be given. “Someone who focused specifically on these issues would be a welcome addition to the state department.”
“Our embassies should be ‘islands of freedom’, and they’ve been anything but in the past two years,” said Wolf. “And the Bush administration didn’t do much better.”
“Women are being held in Pakistan for blasphemy, and Christians in Afghanistan are being held for their faith,” Wolf told me. “We’re sending people to die In Iraq and Afghanistan, and Christians can’t even survive persecution. We’ve given 50 billion in aid to Egypt, and they’re persecuting Copts. We give Morocco hundreds of millions through a challenge fund, and they expel Christians.” (The Millennium Challenge Corporation, established by Congress in 2004, signed a five-year, $697.5 million aid deal with Morocco in 2007).
Wolf told me he might advocate for withholding aid dollars to nations that continue to allow (and support) the persecution of their religious minorities, striking money from states like Lebanon and Morocco if exiles aren’t returned. In the short run, Wolf encourages the State Department to undertake a review of its aid policy to the persecuted minorities, and to promote international awareness of their plight through the office of a special envoy.
“President Ronald Reagan once said that the U.S. Constitution is a ‘covenant that we have made not only with ourselves, but with all of mankind,’” Wolf aptly reminded Congress in his opening remarks last week. “I believe that the United States has an obligation to speak out for the voiceless around the world, and I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting my legislation.”
Thomas O’Ban is an intern at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.