Foreign Policy: The Real War on Christianity

In the Middle East, the Islamic State is crucifying Christians and demolishing ancient churches. Why is this being met with silence from the halls of Congress to Sunday sermons?

Last August, President Barack Obama signed off on legislation creating a special envoy charged with aiding the ancient Christian communities and other beleaguered religious minorities being targeted by the Islamic State.

The bill was a modest one — the new position was given a budget of just $1 million — and the White House quietly announced the signing in a late-afternoon press release that lumped it in with an array of other low-profile legislation. Neither Obama nor any prominent lawmakers made any explicit public reference to the bill.

Seven months later, the position remains unfilled — a small but concrete example of Washington’s passivity in the face of an ongoing wave of atrocities against the Assyrian, Chaldean, and other Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.

Seven months later, the position remains unfilled — a small but concrete example of Washington’s passivity in the face of an ongoing wave of atrocities against the Assyrian, Chaldean, and other Christian communities of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has razed centuries-old churches and monasteries, beheaded and crucified Christians, and mounted a concerted campaign to drive Christians out of cities and towns they’ve lived in for thousands of years. The Iraqi city of Mosul had a Christian population of 35,000 when U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003; today, with the city in the hands of the Islamic State, the vast majority of them have fled.

Every holiday season, politicians in America take to the airwaves to rail against a so-called “war on Christmas” or “war on Easter,” pointing to things like major retailers wishing shoppers generic “happy holidays.” But on the subject of the Middle East, where an actual war on Christians is in full swing, those same voices are silent. A push to use American aircraft to shield the areas of Iraq where Christians have fled has gone nowhere. Legislation that would fast-track visa applications from Christians looking to leave for the United States never even came up for a vote. The White House, meanwhile, won’t say if or when it will fill the special envoy position.

“It’s been difficult to get the attention of the previous administration, or the current one, when it comes to the urgent need to act,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo, the California Democrat who drafted the visa legislation. “The classic definition of genocide is the complete annihilation of a group of people. The Islamic State is well on its way. It keeps me up at night.”

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Last summer, an unusual symbol began replacing the avatars used on the Facebook and Twitter pages of thousands of individual Christians from Lebanon, Britain, the United States, and numerous other countries. It was the Arabic letter nun, written in gold against a black background, and it was there for a reason.

When the Islamic State conquered Mosul in June 2014, the militants scrawled the letter on the homes of the city’s Christians. It was the first letter of the word “nasrani,” an Arabic term for Christians that is often used as a slur. The Islamic State then delivered an ultimatum: All Christians in the city must either convert to Islam, pay a tax, or face execution. Most of the city’s remaining 3,000 Christians fled their homes, marking what could be the end of the city’s centuries-old Christian community.

Small numbers of Christians around the world turned to social media to try to call attention to the Islamic State’s crackdown and turn the word from a symbol of violent extremism into a symbol of solidarity. The Twitter hashtag #WeAreN began to trend globally, and the letter nun became the avatar of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users.

It was a watershed moment for some American Christians, who were only dimly aware — if they were aware at all — of the attacks being committed against Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq and Syria. Christian Solidarity International, a nonprofit that provides support for victims of religious persecution, issued a “genocide warning” for religious minorities in the Middle East as early as 2011, but few American Christians paid any attention. The nun symbol finally brought an otherwise distant conflict home to many in America, creating a “sense of identification with Christians in the Middle East,” said Timothy Morgan, senior editor for global journalism at Christianity Today, a Christian magazine that also replaced its own Twitter avatar with the Arabic letter.

“American churchgoers are always scratching their heads, wondering, ‘Who are these Christians? We don’t really know anything about them,’” Morgan said. “The ‘N’ campaign seemed to really grab people’s hearts.”

But while the campaign raised awareness on social media, it didn’t spur many American Christians to push Capitol Hill for emergency aid or visas for the beleaguered Iraqis. That’s due in part to the international nature of the issue. Many Christians and Christian organizations are politically active on domestic issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. But international issues are “more intimidating to people,” Faith McDonnell, the director of Religious Liberty Programs at the Washington-based Institute of Religion and Democracy, said in an interview. She added that many Christians and other Americans concerned about the plight of Middle Eastern Christians “don’t even know who is on the Foreign Relations Committee.”

Johnnie Moore, a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Evangelicals and the author of Defying ISIS, a book being published this month that documents what the author calls a “Christian genocide” in the Middle East, said that he had noticed a “big change” among churchgoers’ awareness in the past few months, especially since the Islamic State’s videotaped beheading in February of 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in Libya. “[Christians] want and expect the U.S. government to do more, and they are angry that it hasn’t,” Moore said.

Read more at The Real War on Christianity.