ROME— A U.S. government official visiting Rome on Monday said that as a result of Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS, the “door for Christians in Iraq is closing” and the window of time to prevent their eradication is narrowing.
“I feel a sense of urgency, because Christians are leaving [the Middle East], and at some point it could become demographically unable for this community to sustain itself,” said Knox Thames, the U.S. Department of State’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South and Central Asia.
Pushing the door back open, Thames said, “will be hard, it’s a long [and] complicated answer to a complicated situation.”
Thames said guaranteeing religious diversity and the survival of churches such as the Assyrian Church of the East, which after having its patriarchal see in Chicago for over 70 years is now moving back to Erbil, Iraq, is a priority of the Obama administration.
Speaking to journalists on Monday in Rome, Thames highlighted Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration of genocide of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria as a sign of that commitment.
Recognizing that ISIS is systematically trying to eliminate ethnic and religious minorities was an attempt to “give the [persecuted] hope that the world has noticed,” he said, adding that in the past, recognizing a genocide has led to a concrete international reaction.
Thames also acknowledged that as things stand, Christians and other minorities from Iraq and Syria have “lost faith” in their countries, and that the international community will have to assist in reconstruction efforts to guarantee not only the safety of these communities, but also some basic development, such as electricity, sewage and sanitation.
Without these infrastructure investments, he lamented, “no one will want to stay, Christian or other.”
“What can we do so they have faith in their country?” he wondered. “I’m not sure what’s the right approach, but we need to make sure we find what works in each context.”
Thames gave three models of coexistence: Qatar, Lebanon, and the recently signed “Marrakesh declaration.”
Qatar, he said, is “a fascinating example where cultures are intermixing.” As result of heavy immigration, mostly from the Philippines and India, religious minorities are growing rapidly.
For the first time, a non-Abrahamic religion, Hinduism, is entering the Gulf, and the strong Filipino presence represents a second wave of Christianity. Thames said that the United States and other countries are monitoring Qatar because they want to see an interaction between Qataris and immigrants that fosters “mutual understanding.”
Lebanon was the first country Thames visited after assuming his position in the Secretary of State, back in 2015. He applauded the “heroic” response to the migrant crisis- one fourth of the total population is immigrant-, and the “sectarian balance” the country has achieved.
Often criticized by other countries in the region, Lebanon has been able to create a stability other Middle Eastern nations lack. This country too is being monitored closely to ensure that the plurality of voices envisioned in its Constitution is being guaranteed in the government through, for instance, diversity in the parliament.
The third model of coexistence is that proposed by the Marrakesh Declaration, signed in January by religious leaders based in Muslim-majority countries. The document is based on the Charter of Medina, a document allegedly written by Muhammad which talks about the treatment of non-Muslims and calls for accepting a plural religious state.
The Morocco-sponsored summit called on predominantly Muslim-majority communities to apply Muhammad’s Charter of Medina and grant non-Muslim minorities “freedom of movement, property ownership, mutual solidarity and defense.”
Retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., recently spoke about this declaration, urging journalists “not to let this document die,” defining it as a “living challenge to the Islamic people and to non-Islamic people around the world.”
The official was in Italy to visit several Vatican offices to see how the United States and the Catholic Church can work together in the common goal of providing safety to historic religious minorities in the Middle East.
“The Vatican gets us intrinsically,” Thames said, adding that Catholic teaching on protection of conscience actually helps the U.S. government to deepen its arguments.
Talking specifically about what the United States is doing to help persecuted minorities, Thames listed financial aid for economic development, prosecution for mass atrocities, protection of historic religious sites with the help of UNESCO, and documentation of things such as mass graves and cases of gender violence.
He also said that his work is basically divided in three axes: “protection,” what can the United States and its allies do to defend minorities that are either still in the region or those who have fled; “equipping,” meaning how to help local governments in their responsibility for protecting minorities; and “reform,” what can the US do to encourage countries that are either persecuting or refusing to aid those persecuted.
The key, Thames said, is education: “When extremists take over a government, the first thing they do is take over the education ministry.” This, he said, is because they know that with 15 years of indoctrination, they can change the structure of society.