In the fall of 2010, a few months before revolution swept the Muslim world, I happened to be in Yemen for work. The trip coincided with the start of the Eid holiday, which provided ample free time to see much of the capital, Sana’a. One afternoon, en route to the hotel from the historic Old City, the driver pointed out the window at a group of men standing on a vacant corner. “Look!” he said with the excitement of happening upon a rarity. “Those are Jews.” They were some distance away, and whatever distinguished them from other Yemeni, I could not see it through the window of an SUV. In the blink of an eye, they were no longer visible.
At the start of the last century, there were tens of thousands of Jews in Yemen; today, there are perhaps hundreds. Most were airlifted out in 1949 and 1950 as part of Operation Magic Carpet, an Israeli undertaking to rescue Arab (especially Yemeni) Jews following the pogroms that resulted from the founding of Israel in 1948. While efforts to rescue the remaining Jews have recently resumed, the whereabouts of many Yemeni Jews remains unknown.
The exodus of Jews from Yemen, where they had lived for fifteen centuries before the birth of the Prophet, was not an isolated occurrence; it was repeated across the Middle East and North Africa, as these Diaspora Jews made their way, reluctantly in many cases, to Israel. Their fight for survival foreshadowed that of the more than ten million Christians of the Muslim world, who today struggle to maintain a presence and identity in the lands where they have lived for centuries.
Across the Middle East, affiliated Islamist movements have undertaken the systematic eradication of religious minorities, especially Christians. From Mali to Egypt, and from Syria and Iraq to Pakistan, millions of Christians find themselves threatened daily with humiliation, extortion, displacement, and murder. Yet where the Muslim world’s Jews had Israel to come to their defense, the region’s Christians have no protector state. These Christians have looked to Western governments, especially America, for moral leadership and advocacy. Yet as the violence of the Arab Spring escalated, America was retreating from its commitment to religious freedom—not only abroad, but at home as well.
Shortly after the 2009 Fort Hood shooting in which an Army psychiatrist who adhered to radical Islamist ideology shot forty-two people, killing thirteen, President Obama first used the phrase “freedom of worship.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton followed suit, using the more restrictive phrase in lieu of the more expansive “freedom of religion.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2010 Annual Report took note of the shift, stating, “This change in phraseology could well be viewed by human rights defenders and officials in other countries as having concrete policy implications.”
As Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom, observed, this expression implies a narrower scope of the exercise of religion. “It excludes the right to raise your children in your faith; the right to have religious literature; the right to meet with co-religionists; the right to raise funds; the right to appoint or elect your religious leaders, and to carry out charitable activities, to evangelize, [and] to have religious education or seminary training,” said Shea, who previously served on the Commission.
When the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices were released in May of this year, the section on religious freedom, which had been a crucial component of the reports, had been removed. Secretary Clinton originally announced that the reports had “evolved.”
But by the time the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its annual International Religious Freedom Report two months later, events unfolding in the Middle East had compelled her to reconsider the issue. She called religious freedom “a cherished constitutional value, a strategic national interest, and a foreign policy priority,” adding that it was an “essential element of human dignity and of secure, thriving societies, statistically linked with economic development and democratic stability.”
The Secretary’s eloquent remarks on liberty were not, however, sufficient to exculpate an administration whose foreign policy has failed to press for the human rights of religious minorities in countries like Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt—recipients of billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid annually.
In January, Obama’s political appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services issued the contraception mandate. That same month, Pope Benedict XVI issued a warning to the U.S. bishops: “The entire Catholic community in the United States must come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.” Such an admonition is without precedent in the history of U.S.-Vatican relations.
In a speech earlier this year, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations and former apostolic nuncio to Iraq and Jordan, challenged Americans to protect religious freedom in their country: “While nobody would confuse the marginalization of religion with the actual killing of Christians in other parts of the world, it is through this marginalizing that violent persecution is born.”
The aftermath of the Arab Revolution will be a crucial period for the region’s Christians, as well as for other religious minority groups. Their fate will signal the future of the Muslim world and will tell us much about the character of Muslim democracy: Will it cherish the contributions of its minorities; will it tolerate diversity; or will it follow the trajectory of radical Islamism, exterminating all traces of Christian culture from Christianity’s ancestral homeland?
If the Islamists prevail, there will be no “Operation Magic Carpet” to rescue Christians from their ancestral homelands. America need not orchestrate an exodus of Christians; indeed, as many Muslim moderates have noted, Christians bring a healthy diversity to the Middle East and their role there ought to be preserved. However, the U.S. must provide moral leadership on this issue. If America’s emphasis on tolerance and pluralism has any meaning, it must mean that, at a minimum, America speaks out in defense of religious minorities in the Middle East, for whom the holding of their beliefs may be sufficient to cost them their lives.
Andrew Doran is a consultant for the U.S. Department of State, where he previously served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO.
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