The Most Invisible Christians in Washington
The woman’s voice rose higher and began to crack. It broke through the apparent frustration—and to a lesser extent, anger—which permeated the packed room at the National Press Club in Washington last week.
“We are being massacred and I don’t know how much further we can go,” she said, the tears finally coming. Murmurs and nods, then applause, rushed in with a sort of catharsis. Nahren Anweya was among friends.
An Assyrian Christian activist, Anweya says she has family living under persecution by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq. She had taken the microphone at a press conference held in Washington by In Defense of Christians (IDC), which brings together scholars, elected officials, advocates, and clergy to discuss urgent threats to their faith in the Middle East. They meet once a year to lobby Congress, and include the most ancient of Christians—the ethnic Assyrians, who still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus—along with the Syriacs, Chaldean Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Copts, Maronites, Melkite Greek Catholic, Protestants and more.
Beyond the ongoing conflict in Iraq, which has driven tens of thousands of Christians out of the region since 2003, the issue has taken on a particular urgency as the Islamic State has accelerated brutal attacks and kidnappings of minority Christians in Iraq and Syria. Families have been sent into hiding and across borders.
The New York Times recently asked, “Is this the end of Christianity in the Middle East?” For many at the conference this week, such statements are the canary in the proverbial coal mine. To them, time is running out. The pre-2003 Christian population in Iraq numbered about 1.5 million. Today, it is less than 300,000 and shrinking rapidly. In Syria, Christians once accounted for 10 percent of the population, but today their numbers have declined to an estimated 1 million or less. ISIS and other Muslim insurgents target them not only for their faith, but for their traditional support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has in turn insulated them. Years ago the Christians there thrived; in recent months, however, that sanctuary has proven brittle: Most recently, after a summer of kidnappings and killings, 150 Christians were taken from the town of Qaryatain after it was seized by IS soldiers from government forces in August. Word quickly spread of women and children who were raped and sold into slavery.
“The world has watched and witnessed the targeted persecution of Christians, suffering violence, displacement, rape, enslavement, and even death,” said Kirsten Evans, executive director of IDC. “Do these crimes constitute genocide under international law, and if so, what are the options the international community has in order to respond?”
The first question was rhetorical: this group is emphatic that the “G word” be used in all references to the Christian plight. They spent the rest of the week talking to no less than 250 lawmakers and urged them to support a bipartisan resolution—introduced this week by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska)—declaring the attacks to be “genocide,” and calling for international tribunals, as well as the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators wherever the crimes happen, whether in Iraq, Syria or beyond.
“What we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria today is genocide,” exclaimed former Rep. Frank Wolf, (R-Va.), whose vigorous remarks nearly blew out the speakers in the low-ceilinged space, which was standing room only.
“I visited Iraq in January of this year … going through villages to the front lines, the Peshmerga took us out, and talked to and interviewed roughly 75 people. I came back and asked, does this administration care? Does the congress care? Does the UN care, and sometimes, does the church care?”
Last year, this message was overshadowed in the media by an appearance by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Unlike the vast majority of people who attend the IDC events, Cruz is a Southern Baptist Christian and a provocative partisan who even a year ago had been identified as a potential candidate for president.
In 2014, Cruz was invited to present a keynote speech at the conference’s gala dinner, easily the most coveted slot of the three-day event. What happened next most likely had to do with a report at the Washington Free Beacon a few days before, which called the conference a hotbed of “pro-Hezbollah and pro-Assad speakers.” It alleged that major Democratic fundraiser and Lebanese businessman Gilbert Chagoury—a longtime bête noir of Republicans who love to tie him to Bill and Hillary Clinton—was funding the conference, and that key presenters, including the patriarchs of the Syriac and Maronite churches, had been rabble rousers against the state of Israel and Zionism for years. The article pointed out that members of the Hezbollah party in Lebanon, which has been part of the government there since 2005, would be in attendance. By the time Cruz stepped on the stage, the event had morphed into a “snake pit of pro-Islamists,” “Iran linked” and “an Axis of Evil” summit, according to the right wing blogosphere.
One could say Cruz made a calculated decision, but whatever it was, he came locked and loaded. He appeared to focus on devotion to Israel, not the issue of Christian persecution that had drawn the audience. After initial applause, then polite but uneasy silence, the boos came. Some Lebanese parliamentarians walked out. Then Cruz made a dramatic exit, not before announcing that “some here” are “consumed with hate.” Later on Twitter, Cruz offered one last flourish: “Anti-Semitism is a corrosive evil, and it reared its ugly head tonight.”
Former IDC executive director Andrew Doran, then still in charge, was subsequently forced to explain the audience’s behavior to National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez. But he stood his ground on Cruz: “It’s unfortunate that Senator Cruz was booed. But what’s more unfortunate is that he chose to make a summit of and for Middle Eastern Christians about something other than a summit about Middle Eastern Christians …” Doran concluded that Cruz’s remarks were “designed to bait the audience; sadly, some attendees took the bait.”
There were plenty of Republican members of Congress at the IDC meeting this year, but no presidential candidates courting the evangelical vote like Ted Cruz made it to the dais. During the wide-ranging press event, talk hardly meandered toward Israel, save for Wolf and others raising the horrors of the Holocaust and the price humanity pays when ignoring the warning of impending persecution and slaughter. This was met with nodding, not booing.
Instead, tensions surfaced among audience members over what motivates IS. Is it Islam? Or as Katrina Lantos Swett, the chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom suggested, it could be a totalitarian impulse akin to Stalinist communism or Nazism, albeit one informed by religion. Later on, a woman could be heard scolding the Armenian speaker for not specifically raising the plight of Assyrians in his remarks, a charge he emphatically denied.
This year, it was headlines that threatened to subsume IDC’s message. The wave of humanity flooding Europe from Syria and Iraq—in numbers that dwarf those of the Christian victims of IS attacks—was front and center. Even the Pope weighed in on Sept. 6, urging Westerners to open their doors to their Muslim brethren.
“There is no differentiation in my mind,” said Evans when asked by TAC if it might be difficult to get their issues—specific to Christians—heard among the din. She and others acknowledged that the vast number of people suffering from the onslaught of IS in the region are in fact, Muslim. She said IDC stands with all victims, “regardless of religion.”
It is a human rights crisis, she said, “and we are piece of that; we want to defend the whole pie. Absolutely all.”
The solution appears to be two pronged. First bring attention to violence against all people in the Middle East and the cause of that violence, while lobbying to get Christian minorities out of conflict zones on expedited visas. Then promote bolstered aid for those who cannot leave, and propose safe havens like the Nineveh Plains Project, which seeks to restore control of ancient lands to Assyrian Christians in the north of Iraq, an area now under siege by ISIS fighters.
Muslims, some attendees suggested, are not on the verge of annihilation in the Middle East. Others pointed out that Shia are being killed for their faith by Sunni IS. That’s genocide, too.
“Basically we have to have a legal strategy and a public relations strategy—of which this press conference is one—and everyone has to call things by their proper name,” said Robert Destro, professor of law at Catholic University. “Christians, Shia, Yezidis—all different groups—and not just in the Middle East—we have to get everyone into this and we have to call things by their proper name and calling it genocide is a good place to start.”
IDC left town a little more than a week before the arrival of Pope Francis. But the group is lobbying him, too, at a distance and through the media, to specifically mention genocide when he makes remarks about the state of the Middle East.
“I am hopeful that the pope, when he is before a joint session of congress with the House and Senate and the joint chiefs and the whole world watching, will call it genocide,” said Wolf, “and that in itself can be a game changer.”
Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.