The Yom Kippur liturgy, just followed in synagogues around the world, repeats several times references to God as one who rescues captives. The central daily Jewish prayer as well refers to God who “supports the fallen, heals the sick, sets captives free.” And throughout Jewish history, the redemption of captives has been considered an important commandment. This is the background to the repeated decisions by the state of Israel to free a hundred or a thousand Arab prisoners in exchange for one single captive Jew. It is also the background to Israel’s actions to rescue the entire Ethiopian and Yemeni Jewish communities by bringing them to Israel.
The rescue of threatened Jewish communities has been a central public purpose of Jews living in safety. American Jews pressed their government to push back against repression in Morocco in the 19th century and in czarist Russia in the early 20th. They failed to get the doors open for many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, but they tried—despite rampant antisemitism, not least in the State Department. They succeeded in opening the doors of Soviet Russia, whence a million Jews fled to Israel.
It is in that context that the failure of the United States and the countries of Western Europe—all of which have overwhelming Christian majorities in their populations—to protect or to accept as refugees many Middle Eastern Christians (and other minorities, such as the Yazidis and Baha’i) is worth exploring. To be sure, Jews have been an oppressed and endangered minority for a couple of thousand years, so the habits of rescue are deeply ingrained in liturgy and in communal life. Christians have had two pretty good millennia, and the idea that there are Christian communities being destroyed, and Christians being enslaved, raped, and murdered because of their faith, may be hard for many Christians in the year 2015 to understand.
Nevertheless, it is true. Evangelical churches reacted powerfully in the 1990s to the persecution of Christians in Sudan, and American policy there was more activist than it would have been had they stayed silent. But in the last decade ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been ravaged. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has told the story in books and articles, such as this portion of a recent National Review article:
ISIS and other Islamist extremists are waging genocide, the most egregious of all human-rights atrocities, against Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, and other defenseless religious minorities. . . . Similar to Jews under Nazi domination during World War II, the Christians and other minorities in the Middle East today are facing, in addition to the wartime privations suffered by the general population, a relentless and deliberate extermination campaign being carried out in the name of Islamic purification. In the summer of 2014, ISIS launched its caliphate from Mosul by marking Christian homes with the red letter “N,” for “Nazarene,” before confiscating them and exiling their owners. Since then, it has pursued Christians and the other minorities with a systematic intensity intended to delete every trace of their ancient presence. Solely for their religion, Christians and Yazidis have been beheaded, enslaved, abducted and sold, forcibly converted to Islam, and stripped of all their property. Their houses of worship and their cultural artifacts have been expropriated or demolished, including the fifth-century monastery in Qaraytain and Nineveh’s fourth-century Mar
The facts are not really in doubt. Christians form decent-sized minorities in Egypt and Lebanon, and tiny minorities elsewhere in the Middle East. Today those communities are (except, of course, in Israel) under great risk—especially in Iraq and Syria—and thousands are fleeing for their lives. So put aside for the moment the issue of additional military intervention in the Middle East to protect them, and ask instead why we and the Europeans do not at least rescue Christians who are fleeing. In the current European refugee crisis, only Hungary’s repellent prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has said that the West should do so. “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim. . . . That is an important question, because Europe and European culture have Christian roots,” he wrote. Donald Tusk, the Pole who is president of the European Council, rebuked Orbán and said, “Referring to Christianity in a public debate on migration must mean in the first place the readiness to show solidarity and sacrifice. For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”