As we celebrate the holidays, let’s remember that this is one of those savage epochs when some families must choose between their faith and their lives. It is an echo of when Nero burned Christians alive, or when self-described Christians unleashed pogroms against Jews.
Partly because of allergies about religion, the international response has been utterly ineffective. Liberals are sometimes reluctant to champion Christians who are persecuted for their faith. And conservatives are too quick to champion only Christians, neglecting other religious minorities – such as the Yazidis – who suffer even worse fates. One result of this “God gulf” is that the Western response to atrocities against religious oppression is pathetically inadequate.
The Islamic State in October released a video that is a stomach-wrenching glimpse of the worst kind of religious repression. Three Syrian Christian men, one a doctor, are made to kneel in the desert in orange jumpsuits and state their religion. Behind each is an executioner who then uses a handgun to fire a bullet into the back of each Christian’s head.
Some Christian leaders in America want President Obama to declare that a genocide is underway against Christians in the Middle East. I don’t think I’d call it a genocide, but it is absolutely the religious version of an ethnic cleansing.
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In 1910, Christians made up 14 percent of the population of the Middle East. Today, they are about 4 percent, the result of emigration, lower birthrates – and religious repression that threatens the viability of Christianity in much of the region where it was born.
The United States bears some responsibility, for in Iraq our invasion in 2003 led to a drastic worsening of this ethnic cleansing. The number of Christians in Iraq has fallen by half since 2003, and a religious minority called the Mandeans says that almost 90 percent of its members have been killed or have fled Iraq, according to an indispensable report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
The most repressed group in the Middle East may be the Yazidis, an ancient group with their own monotheistic religion. In August 2014, the Islamic State invaded Yazidi areas, immediately killing some 5,000 people, mostly men. About 3,000 women and girls were kidnapped and, in many cases, turned into sex slaves. One was just 9 years old and handed over to an ISIS fighter to be raped; no one knows what happened to her.
Laila Khoudeida, a Yazidi woman who came to the United States in 1999 and is now a social worker in Nebraska, spends her evenings offering long-distance counseling to Yazidi women and girls who have escaped their captors. She told me of Hedya, who was 16 when ISIS fighters seized her family.
ISIS fighters first shot Hedya’s father in front of her, and then turned Hedya and her mother into sex slaves, Khoudeida says. Hedya’s mother managed to escape, but Hedya was caught and badly beaten. Eventually, after more than a year of sexual slavery, Hedya escaped a few weeks ago. But because of the beatings and rapes, Hedya suffers head injuries and internal pelvic pain. The psychological trauma is also devastating: She spends much of her time sobbing.
It’s not just ISIS that is the problem. Iran goes out of its way to persecute its Bahai minority. Many nations persecute Ahmadis as heretics. In many countries, including Egypt, with its large Coptic Christian population, Christians and other minorities feel newly insecure. And the most common targets of persecution in Muslim countries are Muslims themselves, in part because of the de facto civil war between Shiite and Sunni factions. Some of the greatest venom in the Middle East is from Sunni groups disparaging Shiites.
While the villains are often Muslims, so, too, are the heroes. When Iran charged a Christian pastor with apostasy, it was a brave Muslim lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, who defended him and won his acquittal – but Iran then sentenced Dadkhah to prison for nine years on vague political charges. He is a model of leadership in speaking out against the religious persecution of people of another faith.
Republicans are right to demand that Obama speak up more forcefully against religious persecution, and it’s sad that the United States is quiet when our allies like Saudi Arabia model religious intolerance. But Republicans go off the rails when they insist (as Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have) that Christians be favored in the refugee process.
Refugee status should go to the most vulnerable, whatever their faith – and in many cases in Syria that is not Christians, who have often been protected by the Assad regime or have moved to Christian enclaves in Lebanon. The Islamic State has been savage to Christians, but fortunately, relatively few Syrian Christians live in areas seized by the Islamic State.
Christian groups like World Relief have been dismissive of Republican claims that the Obama administration discriminates against Christians in the refugee process. Overall, 44 percent of refugees who resettled in the United States since 2003 have been Christians; a full 30 percent of Iraqi refugees accepted by the United States have been Christians, Christianity Today noted. And the Republican-led effort to block Syrian refugees means that we would keep out desperate Syrian Christians.
“Most Syrian church leaders insist that Christians should not be given special treatment,” notes Miles Windsor of Middle East Concern, an organization supporting persecuted Christians. “Assigning refugee status or offering asylum must be on the basis of vulnerability and need. To do otherwise not only violates international refugee and humanitarian law, but also the teachings of Christ.”
We don’t need to give Christians preference. But we should recognize that Middle Eastern Christians, along with Yazidis, Mandeans and others, are facing an ethnic cleansing and that confronting this should be a global human rights priority. As we celebrate the holidays, let’s speak up for those for whom faith is a matter not of casual worship but of fear, rape and murder.
If we need inspiration, we can find it among the Yazidis, who have a traditional culture that emphasizes chastity before marriage. Indeed, some rescued sex slaves fear lifelong stigma that will make it impossible for them to ever have families. But dozens of Yazidi men have recently stepped forward and announced that they honor these raped women and girls and wish to marry them. The raped girls now have their pick of husbands. Bravo. It’s a reminder that alongside the worst of humanity, we can also find the best.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.