Two years after its release, this still photo, taken from an ISIS propaganda video, remains as haunting as ever: a long line of Christian Coptic men in orange jump suits, forced to kneel and await execution simply for being Christian and refusing to renounce their religious beliefs. Even as the blades of the jihadists approached their necks, the martyrs cried out, “Ya Rabbi Yasou!” (“O My Lord Jesus!”).
That image, perhaps more than any other, has come to symbolize the fate of Christians in the Middle East. “What we are witnessing,” said human rights lawyer Nina Shea in a recent interview with me, “is a wave of horrific persecutions that may well eradicate Christian presence from the Middle East.”
To illustrate that, Angelico Press has just published The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East: Prevention, Prohibition and Prosecution, edited by law professors Ronald Rychlak and Jane Adolphe. It brings together more than a dozen scholarly essays written by experts like Shea, and covers every aspect of this ongoing tragedy with an urgency rarely conveyed by books.
The opening chapters document ISIS’s targeted and wholesale destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East—especially in Iraq and Syria—underscoring what Pope Francis told the European Parliament in 2014:
Here I cannot fail to recall the many instances of injustice which daily afflict religious minorities, and Christians in particular.…They are evicted from their homes and native lands, sold as slaves, killed, beheaded, crucified, or burned alive, under the shameful and complicit silence of so many.
Three years have passed since Francis made his emotional appeal, but as this book painfully shows, the situation of Christians in the Middle East remains perilous. For while the armed forces of America and its allies have vigorously fought ISIS militarily, most of our political and diplomatic leaders have done shockingly little to address the specific concerns of its Christian victims.
One reason is the extreme reluctance, in certain influential circles, to declare ISIS guilty of genocide against Christians. Some fear that using the word “genocide” will trigger burdensome legal obligations and spark political demands to combat it. Others claim that ISIS could not be committing genocide against Christians, since they respect them as “People of the Book” and thus give them the option of paying a tax to avoid persecution and death. And still others believe that raising the issue specifically on behalf of Christians would make America appear “sectarian” and even “Islamophobic,” since the perpetrators are self-professed Muslims.
All these arguments are demolished in this book.
First, if a genocide is occurring, or has occurred, it is the obligation of all civilized countries to oppose it: This is the principle behind the United Nations’ Genocide Convention of 1948, produced in the wake of the Holocaust, of which the United States is a signatory. And though concerted action against genocide may be considered “burdensome” by some, it is also basic human decency. If the United States, the most powerful democracy on earth, ever gives up on fighting genocide, it will squander any moral standing it has on this issue—and by giving a green light to mass murderers, it will only increase the possibility of more genocides occurring.
Second, the assertion that ISIS is not committing genocide against Christians because it has offered to protect them as long as they pay a traditional Islamic tax—a jizya—is “pure propaganda,” as Shea emphasized to me, for in its “caliphate,” ISIS left no Christian community intact:
In fact, irrespective of any payments made to it by Christians, ISIS prevents and punishes Christian worship, attacks the Christian and his family members, and steals Christian property. What ISIS refers to as “jizya” taxes are simply extortion and ransom payments that at most provide temporary protection from ISIS attacks. Virtually every Christian who can, flees ISIS-controlled territory. The few aged, disabled, and other Christians who have stayed behind in ISIS-controlled areas have been forced to convert to Islam, become jihadi “brides,” or been taken captive or killed.
The importance of these facts cannot be overemphasized, since even an institution as respected and influential as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum published a deeply flawed report—denouncing ISIS, but also rejecting the claim that it had committed genocide against Christians. The report provoked a strong response from many human rights experts, including Shea, who told me: “The report ignored substantial contrary evidence and failed to include the testimony of Iraqi Christian leaders who had direct dealings with ISIS.”
Third, confronting this crisis honestly and effectively requires recognizing what Islamic radicals are actually doing and teaching in the name of their religion. In her contribution to this volume, co-editor Adolphe describes “the systematic sexual violence against Christian women and children, in armed conflicts, by Islamic extremists.” And in a chapter answering the sweeping (and often spurious) charge of “Islamophobia” against anyone who speaks frankly about radical Islam, Geoffrey Strickland cites ISIS’s public declarations openly endorsing the genocide of Christians, and summarizes the propaganda being spread in certain Islamic schools and mosques:
...that Christians are enemies of the Muslims and that there is perpetual clash with them; that the crusades have not ended and the “Crusader Threat” continues; that the life of a Christian is worth a fraction of that of a free Muslim male; that Christians are swine; and that Muslims are to hate Christians.
The vast majority of Muslims reject such ideas, of course, and it should never be forgotten that many Muslims have themselves been victims of ISIS’s terror, that many serve honorably in armies battling ISIS, and that Muslim leaders have been persecuted and even killed for defending Christians. But if too few non-Muslims speak out against Islamic extremism, because of a misplaced fear about sounding “insensitive,” the actual result will be that ISIS and other extremist Muslims who are outspoken about their beliefs will control the discussion about what “true Islam” really is—with mainstream and reform-minded Muslims being marginalized, despite their majority status throughout the world.
As the contributors to this volume emphasize, there is a monumental struggle going on within Islam over its proper interpretation and direction, and crucial distinctions need to be made between the peaceful and violent. The way to combat prejudice against Muslims is to expose militants who have hijacked Islam for their own dark purposes, while resisting efforts to depict all Muslims as dangerous because of the terrible actions of ISIS.
Despite the enormous obstacles still facing Christians in the Middle East, endangered and displaced as they are, there are signs of hope. After continual appeals to recognize what was unfolding in the Middle East, then-Secretary of State John Kerry stated in 2016 that ISIS “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims.” ISIS, he continued, “is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions—in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.” Kerry’s successor, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has issued a similar statement, as have both houses of Congress. Congress has also passed a law mandating aid to those targeted with genocide. Unfortunately, precious little of this promised assistance has gotten to the victims of ISIS’s genocide because bureaucrats at the State Department and officials at the United Nations have been given the authority to distribute it in a selective manner geared to benefit UN camps—where Christians dare not enter for fear of further persecution by extremists among the refugee majority. But concerted efforts are now being made to correct this scandal and to move everyone, from the president on down, to reform the process and send aid to the communities struggling to recover from genocide.
Meanwhile, as Robert Destro, a contributor to this volume, told me, there are many practical things ordinary citizens can do who want to help. They can educate themselves about this topic by buying and reading this book. They can write to their congressional representatives, bringing this book and its policy recommendations to their attention. They can give a copy of this book to their pastors and get their local churches involved by joining and donating time and money to private organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, which has dedicated a program to save these ancient Christian communities. Finally, if social workers, nurses, doctors, engineers, architects, and so on have the time and skills to care for Christian survivors of ISIS and help rebuild their homelands, they can volunteer for humanitarian missions to the Middle East, visiting and working in those areas where Christians are suffering.
It is not often that one book has the power to motivate people to act for a noble cause, and—if they follow through—to save and protect lives. The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East does. It is a book that should not be missed.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine.
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