WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., chairman of the House congressional panel that oversees global human-rights issues, called on the Obama administration this week to defend the rights of Syrian Christians, caught between the opposing forces of the nation’s protracted civil war.
Of the estimated 4.25 million Syrians displaced by the war, and millions more fleeing to neighboring countries, “one in five [are] Christian, although Christians in Syria make up one in 10 of the pre-war population of 22 million people,” said Smith in an opening statement at a June 25 joint hearing, “Religious Minorities in Syria: Caught in the Middle.”
“This would seem to indicate that Christians are even more fearful for their lives and safety than other segments of the Syrian population.”
Smith’s plea that the administration effectively address the plight of Syria’s religious minorities offered a painful reminder that the dreams of democratic reform and expanded civil rights stirred by the "Arab Spring" uprisings have yet to be fulfilled.
Earlier this month, a comprehensive study of global trends released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life documented an escalation of government restrictions and social hostilities in the wake of the political turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, with mounting pressure on Christians and other religious minorities.
The Pew report findings echo the concerns of human rights and religious-minority groups that have criticized Western governments for failing to promote religious freedom as an essential element of democratic rule of law in nations seeking political change.
The Arab Spring uprisings began in Tunisia in late 2010 and quickly spread across the region. Egypt’s leader and U.S. ally, Hosni Mubarak, resigned in February 2011, and civil war broke out in Syria and Libya.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama approved U.S. military aid to some Syrian rebel groups seeking the overthrow of the government of Bashar al-Assad, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have urged the administration to press for a political settlement that respected religious freedom and would end a civil war that has claimed an estimated 93,000 lives.
“The Syrian people urgently need a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians, one that respects human rights and religious freedom,” stated Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, and Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services, in a June 19 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that also noted a recent appeal from Pope Francis in his June 15 message to the G8 Summit.
Fearing Syria’s ‘Talibanization’
Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told the Register that any political settlement should include provisions for a “democratic constitution that provides for religious freedom” and bars the “‘Talibanization’ of Syria through the establishment of sharia courts.”
Shea was among the panel of experts convened for the June 25 congressional hearing. During an interview with the Register, she noted reports that some Syrian rebel groups have already begun to impose sharia law in localities under their control, and she called on Washington to “ensure” that U.S. military aid would not facilitate “religious persecution or ethnic cleansing.”
She added, “What we are seeing in Syria is a replay of what we saw in Iraq,” where the Christian population was reduced by two-thirds in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The White House, she said, must improve its outreach to the Christian community, which comprises about 10% of the population. At present, Christians are less likely to register as refugees because they fear being targeted in refugee camps. Instead, they seek shelter at Christian monasteries and other church-affiliated institutions, complicating any future effort to qualify for resettlement in the United States.
Smith made a similar point during his opening statement at the congressional hearing, raising questions about whether Washington was using its influence and aid to leverage support for embattled Syrian Christians.
“The administration has also committed to send an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid to ‘vulnerable groups’ in and surrounding Syria. It is not clear whether distribution of this aid will be informed by the plight of religious minorities,” said Smith.
He further expressed concern “that the administration may not be taking seriously the targeting of religious minorities. Too often, we have heard from this administration that they have bigger issues to deal with than the vulnerability of religious minorities.”
No Relief for Religious Minorities
The Pew report offers further evidence that the Arab Spring uprisings have failed, so far, to bolster the already weak civil liberties of religious minorities.
“As of mid-2010, before the Arab Spring, the median level of government restrictions on religion was higher in the Middle East and North Africa than in any other region demarcated by the study,” stated the Pew study, released in late June. “There were widespread expectations, therefore, that the political uprisings in the region in late 2010 and early 2011 would lead to fewer government restrictions on religion.”
According to the study, however, “The region’s already high median score on the Government Restrictions Index (GRI) remained high (5.9 on a 10-point scale at the end of 2011, compared with 5.8 as of mid-2010), and most of the restrictions present in the region before the Arab Spring were still in place after the political uprisings.”
Tom Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, noted, “For the most part. the Muslims who have been targeted are minorities in Muslim-majority countries,” though this religious group is also “persecuted in India and China.”
In Muslim-majority countries like Egypt, blasphemy laws are used to “silence liberals. If you say that Islam does not require the subordination of women, for example, you will be accused of blasphemy,” Farr told the Register.
Pew researchers also documented a rise in social hostilities in that region, including crimes motivated by religious hatred and tensions between religious groups.
The study found that 95% of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa provided no constitutional protections for religious freedom.
Stated the report, “Among countries where Arab Spring uprisings occurred, government restrictions took various forms. In Egypt, for instance, the government continued to permit people to convert to Islam but prohibited them from abandoning Islam for another faith.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.