3-3-15 – The Silent War on Mideast Christians

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS–The spate of brutal and systematic attacks on Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and Egypt by the Islamic State has surged.  Yet despite this targeted violence, there’s a climate of international indifference by many governments and even some Christian communities in the West towards this modern-day religious persecution.

Look at the recent roster of IS terror: in Libya, jihadi militants capture and then behead 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt.  This barbaric attack prompted the UN Security Council to issue a statement condemning the “heinous and cowardly” murders.   The Council added, “ISIL must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence and hatred it espouses must be stamped out.”

The UN’s Human Rights Chief Zeid Raaad Al-Hussein called the executions a “vile crime targeting people on basis of their religion.”  This action carried out in the increasing lawlessness of Libya, was not the first time Coptic Christians or their churches have been attacked.

Speaking from Rome, Pope Francis stated,  “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants…the martyrs belong to all Christians.”

A week later in Syria’s remote Hassakeh Province, IS terrorists seized hundreds of Assyrian Christian women and children for a yet undetermined fate while 33 Christian villages were attacked.

In Iraq, ISIL’s lightening military advances into the northern cities such as Mosul have targeted minority groups such as Christians, Yezidis and Kurds.  A recent UN Report on Iraq conceded,  “The safety and security of members of Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious communities in areas controlled by ISIL remain of grave concern, particularly the thousands of women and children who remain in captivity.”

After ISIL seized Mosul city, Christians were targeted for conversion to Islam or death.  Christian houses were marked by the sign of “N” for Nazerene.

Middle Eastern Christians form an ancient quilt of Assyrian, Coptic, Chaldean Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholic communities from Egypt through Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Christians have formed a unique fabric in these overwhelmingly Muslim societies and have traditionally excelled in business, education and the arts.   These are Arab Christians whose roots in the region stretch back two thousand years predating Islam.

During Syria’s secular regime before the civil war, Christians made up about ten percent of the population of 22 million people.  In neighboring Lebanon, Christians comprised over a third of this once prosperous and secular land.  Conflict and diaspora have dwindled their numbers.

The vengeful intolerance and white heat hated ISIL and its affiliates have for Mideast Christians, seems only matched for an equally hateful mass killings of fellow Muslims.  Though the tiny Christian communities pose no real political threat to the IS rise, the very same communities can be held hostage for propaganda and intimidation value.

Vulnerable Mideast Christians have long been targeted by Al-Qaida and Al Nusra  terrorists.  Just a year ago IS was proclaimed by President Obama as no more that a “junior varsity” terrorist organization.  Six months later its warriors had seized large parts of northern Iraq and were at the gates of Baghdad.  American airstrikes on IS started only in August, and while partially effective, have failed to stem the IS surge.

The rise of ISIL has initially been helped by the initial American underestimation of the threat and embarrassing indecision over policy.  The wider reason rests with a regional power vacuum created in part by the Obama Administration’s indifference to the fate of Iraq’s fragile stability in the wake of the American troop pullout  and a dithering disconnect on defense issues.

But does ISIL wish to use Christian persecution as a trap to lure Western (and let’s admit post-Christian countries) back into the Middle East cauldron?  Possibly.

Significantly, despite the use of American and allied airpower against IS targets, changing the regional chessboard will require boots on the ground to counter, confront, and defeat this scourge.  But the troops should be Arab, not American as not to fall into the trap of  “the Christian West” fighting Islam, of the French to revive the argument of an ex -colonial power, or the Turks to avoid the pitfall of the former Ottoman colonial ruler returning to the region.

IS strives to forcibly create a Sunni Moslem Theocratic State.  We are not talking about a reasonably pluralistic state nor a typical Arab autocracy, but a medieval Islamic caliphate, where there’s no room for any religious nor social dissent.  It’s doubtful most Sunni Moslems favor this path but it is equally certain that IS intimidation and terror are quite convincing given no serious counterforce.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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