This past weekend, the United States began to intervene in the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Iraq. The Islamist group ISIS has made a lightning conquest of much of the region, persecuting religious minorities, and even some Sunni Muslims, everywhere it goes. In response, the U.S. has begun air drops of food and water to up to 40,000 Yazidi refugees stranded on Mt. Sinjar, where ISIS militants have them surrounded. And the U.S. undertook airstrikes against ISIS positions threatening the Kurdish city of Erbil, where hundreds of American advisers are stationed. Other Western nations are getting involved as well. The United Kingdom dropped supplies to the Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar, and France’s Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, visited Erbil to assess the situation.
In planning and delivering assistance to Iraqi refugees, the West—and particularly the United States, which has taken primary responsibility—should not ignore the plight of Christians. It may seem odd to voice this concern. After all, President Obama specifically mentioned Christians in his statements about American action. But Mideast Christians are often an afterthought for the United States, and it seems they are in this situation again. A Wall Street Journal report, which quotes unnamed members of the Obama administration, indicates the threat of genocide against Yazidis was the primary factor in the American decision to intervene. “This was qualitatively different from even the awful things that we’ve confronted in different parts of the region because of the targeted nature of it, the scale of it, the fact that this is a whole people,” the official said.
That is a rather myopic view of the situation. We’re offering assistance to 40,000 Yazidi refugees whom ISIS has driven from their homes and threatened to slaughter. Great—we should. But in the weeks before ISIS turned on the Yazidis, it had displaced more than 100,000 Christians from their homes and driven them into the desert.
ISIS eliminated major Christian communities in Mosul and Qaraqosh, and the U.S. responded only with a concerned statement from its U.N. ambassador. And this is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have become refugees since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. If genocide correctly describes what threatens the Yazidis, it also describes what’s happening to Iraqi Christians. Indeed, many of these Christians are the descendants of people who suffered genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century.
There are reasons why America tends to treat Mideast Christians as an afterthought. Mideast Christians lack a natural constituency in American public life. They are, as one commentator observed, too foreign for the Right and too Christian for the Left. Most of our foreign policy elites have a blind spot about them. And I don’t mean to single out the Obama administration. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute has recounted her attempts to get the Bush administration to focus on the plight of Iraq’s Christians, only to be told by Condoleezza Rice that assistance for Christians would make the United States appear sectarian.
To draw attention to the plight of Iraq’s Christians is not special pleading. The U.S. should not concern itself only with Christians; other religious minorities deserve our attention, too. But, in the Middle East and around the world, Christians are often targeted for persecution in particularly severe ways, and the human rights community often seems not to notice. Indeed, as Pope Francis explained in remarks at a conference co-sponsored by the St. John’s University Center for Law and Religion in Rome this summer, Christians suffer perhaps the largest share of religious persecution in the world today:
It causes me great pain to know that Christians in the world submit to the greatest amount of such discrimination. Persecution against Christians today is actually worse than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era. This is happening more than 1700 years after the edict of Constantine, which gave Christians the freedom to publicly profess their faith.
It’s good that the United States has begun attempts to alleviate a human rights crisis for which it bears much responsibility. Let’s hope it does not ignore some of the principal victims of that crisis.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.