Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40) Usually, we apply this verse to serving the poor or sick; but if we think about it, a person who faces daily death threats, whose family has been killed, and whose whole society is in real danger of extinction, definitely qualifies as “one of the least of these my brethren.”
In that spirit, the ongoing genocide of Christians in the Middle East, especially in ISIS-controlled areas, is a reality we cannot deny.
Crux editor John Allen Jr. documented the persecution of Christians a few years back in The Global War on Christians but the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated significantly since then. Christ based his judgment in Matthew 25 on how we dealt with these least: this applies not just individually, but how we – as an at least nominally Christian nation – respond to genocide against these least of Christ’s brothers.
Recently, I was at a conference run by In Defense of Christians, a non-profit founded to help persecuted Christian minorities. Andrew Doran, a senior advisor to IDC, began the conference by laying out the arguments used to convince both the U.S. Congress and the State Department to declare the violence against Christians and Yazidis and other minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide.
This is a radical move as only once before in American history has the government used the term “genocide” for a current event. Usually, genocide is declared after the fact like it was for the Jews in World War II and Tutsis in Rwanda.
Congress’s unanimous declaration repeatedly refers to “Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities”; I agree with this assessment but will focus on Christian persecution as I know more about it. The UN and the EU have also recognized these acts as “genocide.”
Presenters at the conference calmly presented facts and conclusions that were shocking, not only in their reality but in how they have been ignored by the media. We have seen a few horrific videos of ISIS murdering Christians, but these are just the ones they record for recruitment, and not how the majority of Christians die under their rule.
It isn’t just ISIS. For example, two-thirds of the Assyrians were killed or displaced in the Armenian genocide 100 years ago, and they’ve suffered 50 massacres in the last 100 years. This creates a surreal world where an Assyrian woman like Mona Malik says things like, “We’re not allowed to memorialize an area where 5,000 Assyrians were massacred,” and “The Assyrian society has no future imagination,” because repeated genocide has sapped their ability to see a positive future.
This leads to the dramatic conclusion by another speaker: “We may see the end of a 5000-year-old [Assyrian] civilization in our lifetime.”
We cannot accept that one of the world’s original civilizations and one of the first civilizations to accept Christianity is no longer, that it’s been destroyed on our watch. Looking at the long-term history and percentages eliminated, the persecution of Assyrian Christians seems comparable to the Holocaust during World War II, yet when was the last time you heard about it in society or in the media?
If we really believe that all human life is valuable, and that all of us Christians are one in the body of Christ, we must value the life of an Assyrian Christian or Yazidi killed by ISIS in their homeland, not just an American Christian killed in our homeland.
Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander in Rwanda who was ordered to stand down rather than stop the genocide, wrote in his memoir (Shake Hands with the Devil, pg. 517):
“As the nineties drew to a close and a new millennium dawned with no sign of an end to those ugly little wars, it was as if each troubling conflict we were faced with had to pass the test of whether we could ‘care’ about it or ‘identify’ with the victims before we’d get involved. Each mission was judged as to whether it was “worth” risking soldiers’ lives and a nation’s resources. As Michael Ignatieff has warned us, ‘riskless warfare in pursuit of human rights is a moral contradiction. The concept of human rights assumes that all human life is of equal value. Risk-free warfare presumes that our lives matter more than those we are intervening to save.’ On the basis of my experience as force commander in Rwanda, j’accuse.”
This is even truer a decade after Dallaire wrote those lines in 2003.
We have an obligation to prevent genocide, yet we don’t put any boots on the ground and avoid accepting many refugees because we can’t risk American lives. What is the point of the US being the last remaining superpower, or the world’s police force – as most Americans would like to think – if we cannot prevent genocide?
The lives of these people matter as much as our own!
The current process of accepting refugees is in direct contradiction to the stated declaration of genocide. According to reports, just 54 of the 11,491 of Syrian refugees accepted to the USA – 0.46 percent – are Christians.
I realize many Muslims are suffering in the Syrian civil war and likely deserve refugee status, but they are over-represented compared to those whom the world has acknowledged genocide against. We might think the Middle East is Muslim but in 2006, before the civil war, 10 percent of Syrians were Christians according to the US State Department. So, despite suffering genocide in their homeland, they are admitted at less than 1/20 the rate of other groups.
It is not that we ignore one class of people in discriminatory ways when we recognize that Assyrian Christians, Chaldean Christians, and Yazidis are facing genocide. It’s like the waiting room in a hospital emergency: I remember as a teen waiting to see a doctor over what was a hairline crack in my leg from a sledding accident when a man came in with a serious ax wound. I had no objection to letting him go ahead even though he came later, because he would have died otherwise.
The minorities in ISIS-controlled areas face death as cultures, if we don’t do something in the next few years.
Many of these people don’t want to become refugees, and a large portion of the IDC conference was dedicated to solutions for once ISIS is defeated. One main focus is creating an autonomous province in Iraq in the Nineveh Plain to protect Assyrians, Chaldeans and other minorities like the Kurdish region protects Kurds.
This is not a new plan, as the idea of a more federalized and less centralized Iraq was pushed by Sen. Joe Biden back in 2006. Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution implies something along these lines when it says: “This Constitution shall guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents.”
Historically, providing land and autonomy to persecuted minorities has worked relatively well, and this seems to be what they want. (I’m not an expert on the politics of that region, but I trust the Assyrians and Chaldeans).
Americans have always valued protecting persecuted minorities. Unfortunately, for years American Middle East policy was constrained by the fact that the US depended on the region for oil.
However, with current trends towards US energy-independence, either absolutely or simply needing Canadian imports, the US has less to worry about in angering Middle Eastern leaders. Now the US can seek to have policies following its values, rather than have its hand forced because of short-term interest.
If 100 million Americans show outrage and we get the media talking, the government will respond – the US government generally responds to the will of the electorate if it is big enough and loud enough. Then, hopefully, the US government will treat it like the genocide they’ve declared it to be.
We have to change our actions – both individually and as a nation – to reflect the reality, which is that people are being exterminated based on their Christian faith. We cannot stand idly by but will be judged on how we treat these least of Jesus’s brothers.