Christian decline in Mideast

This graphic shows the decline in the number of Christians in the Middle East.

At a conference earlier this year, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York used forceful language in a speech about the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

Calling it an "international emergency," Dolan said, "We cannot let it go. We are going to talk about Christians being beheaded, martyred, harassed, threatened.

"In talking about it, we have got to be blunt, we have to call it what it is. We are talking about fanatical Islamic Christianophobic terrorism, and we should not be afraid to tag it as such."  

The message inspired Frank A. Orban III, an international attorney from Lancaster and a knight with the Order of Malta, Lancaster Hospitaller Region, to assemble a summit in Lancaster to address the concerns articulated by Dolan.

"I wanted the Order of Malta, whose history was intimately connected with defending the Christian faith, to help convey to the larger Lancaster community … what is facing Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East," Orban explained.

The two-day summit, which is free and open to the public, begins Thursday at 7 p.m. at Eden Resort Inn with keynote speakers George Marlin, author of “Persecuted Christians: A 21st Century Tragedy," and Mideastern Maronite Rite Bishop Gregory Mansour.

On Friday at 9 a.m., Thomas Farr,  director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University and former head of the U.S. State Department's Office of Religious Freedom, will speak at Franklin & Marshall College's Alumni Sports Fitness Center.

Farr was one of  more than 100 religious leaders, scholars and human rights activists who signed a letter on Oct. 5 urging  President Barack Obama to declare the killing and displacement of religious minorities in the Middle East by the Islamic State as genocide.

In an email interview, Farr offered his views on the situation facing Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

What is at stake in the war with Islamic State?

 At stake is the fate of Christians and of Christianity in Iraq and Syria; the very possibility of social, ethnic and religious pluralism in those countries, and therefore of any prospects of stability; and the continued success of this form of violent Islamist extremism, which threatens American interests in the Middle East, Europe and in the homeland.

You have written that the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern Muslims do not support violence or cruelty against others, including Christians. Yet we hear of few attempts to alter that pattern. Why, if most Muslims oppose violence, do radicals remain in control?  

 Numerically, the greatest victims of ISIS, al-Qaida and other Islamist terrorist groups are Muslims. Most Muslims in the Middle East oppose those interpretations of Islam that lead to such carnage and destruction. Notwithstanding the rise of democratic movements in the Middle East, most Muslim-majority countries are led by either secular (Syria, Egypt) or religious (Iran, Saudi Arabia) authoritarian regimes that are not responsive to the concerns of their citizens.

All that said, most Muslims, while rejecting violent extremism, do support the basic idea that those who criticize or defame Islam are deserving of punishment. This malevolent idea supports anti-blasphemy, defamation and apostasy laws in most countries of the Middle East, laws that ensure liberal Muslim voices are not heard, and act as a gateway to extremism.

Christian persecution in the Middle East has increased dramatically since the U.S. retaliated against Islamic terrorists who attacked this country in 2001. Can this be attributed to the U.S. response, especially given the number of innocent civilians who have been killed?

 No. While anti-U.S. sentiment in the region is understandable, blaming Christians for U.S. policies is outrageous. However, one can also understand why Christian minorities in the Middle East harbor great resentment for U.S. actions — first invading Iraq and Afghanistan, placing them in great peril, and then abandoning them to the terrible fate which they are now suffering.

You delivered a speech in Rome last year in which you asserted that "religious freedom is not a Trojan Horse designed to undermine their respective cultures, but that it is necessary to (those cultures') own well-being." That may sound logical to Westerners with diverse religious traditions, but does that not lead to tension in nations where those traditions are in conflict?

Indeed it does lead to tension. Religious freedom is often viewed as a Trojan Horse by cultures and religious traditions with little or no understanding of its value. However, the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown has conducted a long-term research project to discover the theological, philosophical and juridical roots of religious freedom in the five major world religions.

We have discovered that each has some resources on which to draw should they find reason to do so. We have also worked to provide those reasons — for example, religious freedom can aid economic growth and the stability of democracy. It can help undermine religious violence and terrorism. Nations and religious communities that see their interests lying in the achievement of such economic, political and social goals may be open to considering the need to move toward religious freedom.   

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in this country has been under legal and political attack. Does that factor into the International Religious Freedom Act? If so, do foreign countries have a valid argument if they say the U.S. is telling them to "Do as we say, not as we do"?

 The same impulses that produced RFRA produced IRFA, i.e., the conviction that religious freedom is foundational to all people and all societies, from the United States to the rest of the world. That conviction is rapidly diminishing in the U.S., which is one reason our IRF policy has been so anemic. So foreign countries have a point if they discern a growing inconsistency in U.S. policy. However, all these factors increase the importance of our rediscovering the value of religious freedom.

Has the Obama administration done enough to fight the persecution of Christians in the Middle East?

 No. Notwithstanding the talented men and women working on religious freedom in the State Department, led by Ambassador David Saperstein, the administration has done very little to undermine religious persecution against any group, including Christians.

What can be done to end the persecution of Christians and other  religious minorities in the Middle East?

 First, ISIS must be destroyed as a fighting force. Second, a safe haven must be established that will protect Christians, Yezidis and other endangered groups. Third, the United States must lead a coalition of nations that will oppose religious persecution and advance religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere. Until that happens, the trends will continue to be downward.

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