WASHINGTON – Religious freedom advocates need to persuade each presidential candidate to “grow a backbone” and speak out for the rights of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, a Southern Baptist church-state specialist said at a recent Washington conference.
Speaking to a room of about 50 religious liberty supporters, Richard Land and two other speakers called for America and its allies to do more to help religious adherents in such countries as Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told the policy makers, faith leaders, scholars and religious liberty advocates that they “represent the movements and the capability of the last line of defense” for the persecuted in the Mideast.
“We need to in this room covenant that we’re going to do everything within our sphere of influence … to make certain that both presidential candidates and both presidential campaigns grow a backbone and use their newly found vertebrae to stand up for the basic values, the basic human values, the basic universal values upon which this nation is based and upon which western civilization is based,” Land said.
When the United States “loses its backbone and becomes an invertebrate, the persecuted of the world suffer, and they suffer disproportionately,” he told his fellow advocates. “Unless we insist that this happen, it’s not going to happen.”
Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Vienna, Austria, and Habib Malik, associate professor of history at the American Lebanese University in Beirut, Lebanon, also addressed the precarious situation for minorities in the Middle East and made recommendations for American engagement.
The June 26 conference sponsored by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom came only two days after Mohamed Morsy of the Muslim Brotherhood was announced as the winner of Egypt’s presidential election. Less than 18 months after the Arab Spring uprising ended the Hosni Mubarak regime, the country’s 13 million Coptic Christians face potential peril under an Islamist president. An uncertain future confronts Christians and other minorities in war-torn Syria. The aftermath of the Iraq war has resulted in at least half of the country’s Christians abandoning their homeland and vast numbers of other religious minorities leaving or being killed.
Representatives of the Egyptian Coptic and Iraqi Christian communities participated in the conference, as well as representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim and Baha’i minorities. Spokesmen from Nigeria also attended.
“We’ve seen human tragedy in the persecution of Christians and others in the Middle East over the last 20, 25 years, and it’s increasing and it has increased as we know as a side effect of the Iraq war,” Land said.
With the Egyptian election result, “we’re talking about a whole different degree of magnitude here. [The Coptic Christians] are in severe danger,” he said. “And when we expand the discussion to talk about Nigeria, there are more professing, church-going Christians – Catholic and Protestant – in Nigeria than there are in any European country except Poland. … And these people are at severe risk of being killed.”
Malik told participants, “Indigenous, Middle Eastern Christians – whether in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, among the Palestinians and whatever remains of them in Iraq, where they were nearly decimated on America’s watch –… do not see a spring anywhere in sight. To them, the term Arab Spring actually sounds increasingly like a bad joke, black humor. They see instead the makings of an Arab nightmare and one with the possibility of bringing death and destruction to them and to people and cultures far beyond the Middle East.”
Without these religious minorities, “pluralism is all but dead in the Middle East and along with it any real chances for genuine freedom and democracy,” he said.
As one of his recommendations, Malik said the United States and its western allies “must draw a thick red line to protect and preserve whatever meager freedoms already exist in part of the Middle East and build on them. This means among other things active protection for minority rights and for pluralism as absolutely integral components of any meaningful, full-bore democratization.”
Schonborn also said America and Europe have a duty to protect the “political rights and religious freedom” of Mideast minorities.
Among Schonborn’s recommendations were:
– “Insist on the importance of the secular state. The Christians and other minorities in the Mideast know that their only chance for survival is a secular state with real religious freedom. … [W]hatever origin it may have, Islamic or other, theocracy is degenerating rapidly into totalitarianism. And as Christians, we stand firmly against any theocracy, because no state can assure the Kingdom of God.
– “Please ask the [politicians responsible] not to repeat in Syria and elsewhere the mistakes of Iraq. … Syria and Egypt must not become Iraq.”
– Do not overlook the reality in the Middle East of the “new presence of Christians coming mostly from Asia.” Filipinos, Indians and Sri Lankans are among those who have moved to that region, and one million Catholics are now living in Saudi Arabia as servants and workers with no religious rights, he said.
The protection of religious rights in the Mideast can be achieved, Land said.
“I know that that’s a really, really ugly, fascistic regime in Iran and a very ugly, fascistic regime in Syria, but they’re not nearly as scary as the Soviet Union was,” he said. “And when the United States had backbone – defined as [President] Ronald Reagan and [Secretary of State] George Schultz – and we made the refuseniks [Jews and others seeking to emigrate] part of every discussion that we had with the Soviets … in the end we won.
“If we can back down the Soviet Union, we can back down” the regimes in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Iraq “and anywhere else,” Land said.
After Land, Schonborn and Malik spoke, participants held an off-the-record discussion of strategies and efforts to advance religious liberty in the Middle East
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)