Will Christians in the Middle East Be Officially Recognized as Victims of Genocide?
Any day now, the U.S. government will designate ISIS’s attempts to exterminate minority religious groups in Iraq and Syria to be genocide. Yezidis — a minority religious group receiving the wrath of ISIS — will be (properly) included in the list of victims. The only question is whether the Christians of Iraq and Syria will be included. The failure of the U.S. government to include them will have profound implications and only further consign them to a fate of continued persecution, abandonment and death.
The genocide carried out by ISIS against Yezidis, Christians and others is only one of many heartbreaking stories of religious persecution forcing people to flee for their lives around the world. A record breaking 38 million people were displaced by violence last year according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. While the refugee numbers have dominated the news, very little research has been conducted on how these mounting tragedies are impacting persecuted Christians — until now. Later this week, a years-long study will be released detailing how Christian communities around the world respond when persecuted and their religious freedom is violated. Do they flee? Do they stay put? In what other ways do they respond?
The study will be formally released at an upcoming conference in Rome organized by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University. The results are sure to be interesting at a time when religious freedom continues to be violated for many worldwide and there is much debate about the very public issue of how to respond to atrocities against Christians in the Middle East. Moreover, beyond policy and politics, there are spiritual implications of the study’s results — will it show that God is building his church despite the horrors of persecution?
One Syrian Christian reported to a prayer gathering in Washington, D.C. that there is a vibrant and growing church in Syria even in the midst of a devastating war. Yet, these heartening stories are rarely reported in the media. Indeed, a review of public news reports regarding Syria is almost uniformly glum. Yet outside our nightly news (and outside of a Google search too), many are drawing near to God and responding to the person of Christ not in spite of — but because of — the current difficulties of the civil war between ISIS, the Assad regime and other factions. Syrian Christians admit to previously leading comfortable lives, which led many to neglect God in the midst of their comfort and ease. Now as danger lurks all around from ISIS, al-Nusra or Assad, they are drawing near to God and he is indeed building his church.
Meanwhile, at the same time, Christians are undoubtedly fleeing Syria due to the difficult situation. It’s understandable that some would flee, and we must take steps to protect them — such as working with the utmost energy to rightfully call what is happening to them a genocide. Yet it is also reassuring that God will nevertheless grow the Christian community in Syria at the same time.
Religious polarization is a theme even in the United States. A pastor visiting the Family Research Council just this past week stated that we may be entering an age of increasing polarization — where nominal or false Christians are separated along with all unbelievers, from those who truly belong to God. That belief is also shared by Canon Andrew White — known as the Vicar in Baghdad for the outsized spiritual role he has played in one of the most difficult places in the world. In a recent visit to Family Research Council, Canon White discussed how he believes we are leaving the world as we know it, and entering a new age of war, an age unlike that which we have seen — in which societies will tear themselves apart internally along spiritual lines.
Whether between nominal and true Christian, Christian and radical Muslim, or radical Muslim and peaceful Muslim, there is conflict all around. Though at first glance depressing, the news is not all bad. This polarization is an opportunity for true Christian light to shine. Similarly, the fragmentation mentioned by Canon White also provided an opportunity for the gospel to be proclaimed in the midst of terror. This is something he knows only too well, having been present in Iraq when ISIS militants killed Christian children who refused to renounce Jesus.
Such testimonies in the midst of peril seem to be all around these days, from Christians refusing to renounce their faith to God building his church in Syria. Stories of Jesus appearing to Muslims and others abound. We must not neglect to work for justice, such as by ensuring that Christians are rightly named as the victims of genocide along with Yezidis. Yet we must not neglect God’s power in the midst of tragedy. While the news can be understandably depressing on first glance, we should be excited to celebrate the (often never reported) news of what God is doing in his church around the world.
Religious liberty advocates are looking forward with expectation to the Rome conference and the exciting developments to be discussed there.
Travis Weber, Esq. is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council and will attend the upcoming conference in Rome entitled “Under Caesar’s Sword: An International Conference on Christian Response to Persecution.”