Why Christians Are Crucial to the Middle East’s Future
Religious freedom expert Thomas Farr says protection of persecuted Christian communities is key to stability and development of the war-torn region.
Thomas Farr is the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center and a visiting associate professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. A former American diplomat, he is a leading authority on international religious freedom.
In December, the Religious Freedom Project hosted a Rome-based conference titled "Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives."
"From Cairo and Damascus to Tehran and Beijing, religious freedom is under siege. Ironically, it is Christianity — a faith that contributed decisively to the rise of religious liberty — that now finds itself increasingly persecuted around the world," the conference organizers noted.
On Dec. 30, Farr offered further reflections on the reasons for the sharp rise in anti-Christian violence in the Middle East and the West’s failure to intervene.
Thirty-seven Iraqi Christians were killed during Christmas Day bombing attacks at two Baghdad churches. What do extremist groups hope to achieve?
In his Dec. 14 speech in Rome, Patriarch [Louis Raphael I] Sako said that Islamist extremists did not want free societies. I think he is right.
There are at least two dynamics at work here. First, extremists seek to suppress or eliminate all those, including Christians, who do not accept Islamist extremism. Second, the extremists understand that if Iraq is to become a functioning democratic society, Christians will play a substantive role. To cause Christians to flee Iraq is to undermine the prospects for a stable Iraqi democracy.
When the U.S. agreed to pull out of Iraq were any guarantees made to provide security for religious minorities? And will Washington’s recent promise of expanded military aid to the Iraqi government make a difference?
I am unaware of any guarantees made by the U.S. to provide security for religious minorities in Iraq or, frankly, anywhere else. In my view, any U.S. aid to Iraq, Egypt or any other country should be tied to protection for religious minorities, especially Christians, who are increasingly in the crosshairs and whose continued presence is vital to American national interests.
Two years after the Arab Spring uprisings, Christians in Egypt and Syria, specifically, seem to be worse off. Could the West have made a difference?
Clearly, Egyptian and Syrian Christians are worse off. The West in general and the U.S. in particular could have mitigated the suffering of Christians by making it clear that their treatment was a matter of high priority. This is especially true in Egypt, where the United States has had some leverage through its foreign aid.
During congressional testimony in December, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom reported that anti-Christian violence is not merely directed at "individuals, but on the Christian and minority presence in its entirety." Would you explain what he means?
I believe that Islamist radicals in Egypt and elsewhere see the Christian presence as a major obstacle to their goals, not simply because Christians represent a religion different from Islam, but also because they represent the building blocks of what might become a stable Egyptian democratic state, with limited government, a vibrant civil society, economic opportunity, full equality under the law for all citizens and religious freedom.
Religious-freedom expert Nina Shea has warned that the latest wave of violence poses an "existential threat to Middle-Eastern Christians — though it is not limited to the Middle East." Your thoughts?
Nina Shea is correct on both counts. Christianity in the Middle East is under siege, but it is also under great pressure elsewhere, including in China, Pakistan, some parts of India, Sudan and Nigeria. I would add that, while Christians in the West are not subject to violent persecution, the public presence and influence of Christian ideas is rapidly diminishing, in part because of the decline of religious liberty in the West. These phenomena help to explain why the West in general and the U.S. in particular have been so ineffective in opposing religious persecution and advancing religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere.
In December, Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project hosted a conference in Rome that addressed Christianity’s contribution to the advance of religious freedom. How did Christianity foster respect for religious liberty?
The idea of religious liberty as intrinsic to every person and the demand that it be protected in law (including in its public manifestations) derives from the Christian tradition. As our conference made clear, the roots of the idea are found, for example, in the New Testament, the Church Fathers, such as Tertullian and Lactantius, the Medieval Scholastics, the Reformation and the founding of America.
The theological root is the Christian belief that man is created in the image and likeness of God and that God desires man to come to him freely. The philosophical root is that human dignity requires freedom in matters religious, such as an immunity from coercion by any human agent, especially governments.
How will the exodus of Christians from the Middle East likely affect respect for religious freedom in that region and other fundamental human rights?
The exodus of Christians is a serious blow to the prospects of religious freedom, not only because their existence ensures religious pluralism, but also because faithful Christians are uniquely "hardwired" to defend religious freedom for all. Their tradition demands it.
What has been the Holy See’s response to the latest wave of anti-Christian violence in the Middle East?
The Holy Father has increasingly spoken out against this violence. Given the world’s attention to him and his views, his strong condemnation of the violence is critical. I hope that his example will encourage other leaders, especially Western leaders, to speak out more consistently and to become serious about advancing international religious freedom.
During a November 2013 address before the U.S. bishops, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York called on U.S. Catholics to "insist that our country’s leaders make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority for the United States." How can we influence U.S. policy, and are there any signs of hope?
U.S. Catholics should, of course, pray for Christians and all other minorities subject to persecution. But they must also get involved. They must, as it were, exercise their religious freedom by demanding that their own government pay more than lip service to the cause of international religious freedom.
Currently, the position of U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom is vacant. It should be filled immediately by a capable senior diplomat who understands the importance of religious freedom, not only as a humanitarian issue, but as a national security issue for the United States. The new ambassador should understand how religious freedom is necessary to stability in places like Egypt and Iraq and should be given the authority and resources to be successful.