It’s refreshing when statements issued by the President of the United States correspond to reality – as in President Obama’s 2015 Christmas statement, when he acknowledged that Christians and other religious minorities are persecuted because of their faith.*
But words cannot prevent the jihad against Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks, Mandaeans, and other Middle Eastern minorities. The U.S. government must match words with deeds on behalf of those who have been raped, tortured, enslaved, and murdered by ISIS and other jihadists.
On Wednesday, December 23, the White House released President Obama’s statement on “Persecuted Christians at Christmas.” After certain other statements by Obama, the acknowledgment was a pleasant surprise to many global religious liberty advocates and others who track such issues. Recall that in February 2015, a White House statement on the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS in Libya referred to “Egyptian citizens.” Only later was it acknowledged that they were Christians. In April 2015, the President lamented the slaughter of 148 college students in Garissa, Kenya by al Shabaab, not mentioning they had been singled out for death specifically because they were Christians.
In his Christmas statement, the President gave thanks for being “fortunate enough to live” in a country that honors “the birthright of all people to practice their faith freely.” He said that he and Michelle were “ever-mindful” that many of their fellow Christians “do not enjoy that right,” and their hearts and minds were with “those who have been driven from their ancient homelands by unspeakable violence and persecution.” Obama deplored the “brutal atrocities committed against these communities by ISIL,” and urged prayer on their behalf.
Unarguably, these are good, powerful words. But it takes actions and policies and not words, no matter how moving, to protect targeted ISIS victims of murder, rape, torture and enslavement. Currently there is a disconnect between the President’s words and his failure to take the kind of action on behalf of ISIS-targeted victims that every other administration of the past 40 years would have easily taken long before now.
The Christians, Yazidis, and other most at-risk, targeted communities have been disregarded by the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) and the “voluntary” agencies’ (VOLAGs) with whom it contracts to resettle immigrants in the United States. The VOLAGs – Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, International Rescue Committee, US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and World Relief – have made little effort to go beyond the UN refugee camps to reach the most vulnerable victims of ISIS. These religious minorities avoid the refugee camps because ISIS killers, pretending to be refugees, penetrate the camps to kill the “infidels.” So the communities that most fit the definition of a “refugee” are largely excluded from UN assistance and rely on the goodness of Christian humanitarian relief groups and other NGO’s. They are also largely excluded from the opportunity for resettlement in the United States.
There is also a disconnect between the President’s words and the actions of an Administration that has sought to differentiate its treatment of Christians and Yazidis. Widely reported news that the State Department will soon issue a genocide determination for ISIS’ victims also reports that State intends to issue the genocide determination only for Yazidis, despite the fact that, as found by unanimous vote of the U.S. Commission on International Freedom, Christians and the other religious minorities “have been similarly targeted for annihilation.”
It is time that the Obama Administration prioritized the protection of actual victims of religious persecution. The current path of migrant resettlement upon which both the United States and Western Europe have trod does not give priority to the most vulnerable communities. The State Department should, first and foremost, be offering visas to those Christians and other religious minorities who choose to leave their homeland. If President Obama is still afraid that this would appear to be a “religious test,” in which Christians get the prize, he need not fear. Apart from the reality that Christians never get the prize in this kind of contest-from-hell, priority would be given to groups that have been “targeted for annihilation,” of which Christians just happen to be one of the foremost examples.
The Administration must also issue a genocide determination that includes Christians along with Yazidis. A genocide determination would require legally that forceful action be taken to protect the vulnerable, persecuted communities and enable them to return to their homes. This is particularly important because many advocates believe that it is a far better option immediately to provide protection and empowerment to ISIS-targeted Christian and Yazidi communities in Syria and Iraq for those who want to stay in their homeland. Many see this as the only way to prevent these ancient cultures that go back beyond biblical days from disappearing. It also seems a wiser option that abandoning much of the Middle East to Islamic Caliphate-builders.
The administration so far has failed to recognize and acknowledge the genocidal campaign undertaken by ISIS against Christians and Yazidis, and therfore to offer the required support that follows such a determination. If the State Department continues to fail to take action, U.S. policy towards ISIS-targeted Middle Eastern victims of annihilation will indicate not only to desperate Assyrian Christians and other religious minorities and their persecutors, but to other Islamist supremacists, the lack of seriousness with which the Obama Administration takes the existential threat to Christianity and religious freedom in the Middle East. It will also indicate the lack of seriousness with which the Obama Administration continues to take the threat of global jihad.
If the Obama Administration only offers Christmas statements about persecuted Christians with no sign of any real action or change taking place, President Obama’s words will not only not be enough, they will be an insult to the Christians and other victims of ISIS genocide.
Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).
*Although, as the Reverend Dr. Mark Durie has pointed out, the President is in error in his comment about the bells of Christian churches ringing “for centuries.”