In Nigeria, 234 Christian schoolgirls abducted; a Jesuit priest shot in the head outside his house in Homs, Syria; a young Christian woman dragged from her car in Egypt and beaten to death… These are some of the latest stories of Christians being hunted, tortured, or executed at the hands of Islamists.
Stories such as these are increasingly finding their way into the American media, and Americans are showing a growing concern for the persecuted church, but policymakers seem slow to respond. Not only is the United States government virtually silent on the issue of the worsening plight of Christians globally, but in three countries where Christians are currently most under siege – Syria, Egypt, and Nigeria – U.S. policy is actually exacerbating the situation.
In Syria, what began as a popular uprising in March 2011 against the repressive policies of President Bashar al-Assad quickly escalated into a civil war fueled by Islamists. The U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, took an active and early role in working with opposition leaders. He convened and hosted numerous meetings with the self-appointed front-men. But what began as well intentioned support eventually crossed the line into king-making.
The U.S. played an increasingly active role in determining who could and could not be at the table. Today, the U.S. policy imperative is that Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad must resign. All U.S. activity in Syria is directed toward that end, which the White House deems non-negotiable. To be sure, most Syrians want to see reform, but many now fear an Islamist takeover spearheaded by al Qaeda affiliates and the ensuing chaos more than they do the continued rule of a secular dictator.
Rather than bring resolution of the civil war any closer, U.S. policies are making matters worse. According to international sources, arms intended for rebels are getting into the hands of extremist groups such as the Al Nusra Front, and Assad shows no sign of surrendering. The Geneva Talks on Syria have failed to stop the fighting, and sources inside Syria say the opposition leaders invited to the talks do not truly represent the Syrians. They are unelected and have the backing only of outside powers, whether the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, all of whom now have a national geopolitical stake in the conflict that has nothing to do with the plight of the Christians caught in the middle of the fighting.
One source inside Syria says the rebels have pushed so hard for arms from the United States and elsewhere because that is their only form of legitimacy. They are not elected leaders and do not have popular support.
In the meantime, a quiet experiment in democracy is underway in the northeast corner of Syria in the region around Hasaka. On the eve of the Geneva II talks, Kurdish, Arab, and Syriac Christian leaders came together to form a power-sharing government, one which, in their words, would respect ethnic and religious differences rather than ignore them. So far, the experiment has brought peace and security to a corner of this war-torn country. This may prove a far more successful model for guaranteeing stability as well as the rights and safety of Middle Eastern Christians than the U.S. government strategy of arming rebels and self-proclaimed opposition leaders.
In Egypt, where Christians make up about 10% of the population, tensions between Christians and Muslims have long simmered, with not-infrequent violent outbursts. When an Islamist government came to power in July 2012, with Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi as president, attacks on Christians, Christian churches, and Christian businesses quickly spiked. In spite of a series of violations of the democratic process by Morsi, as well as the sharp rise in terrorist activity, particularly in the Sinai, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged the continued support of the U.S. government along with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief, private investment, and aid.
However, when an estimated 30 million Egyptians came out into the streets to call for Morsi’s resignation in July 2013, the United States continued to support Morsi and condemned General Fattah el-Sisi, who was instrumental in Morsi’s ouster. Following the change in leadership, Gen. el-Sisi initiated a sharp crackdown on terrorist groups in Egypt, and particularly in Sinai. Yet the Obama administration suspended its $1.55 billion in annual U.S. aid to Egypt.
According to the Egyptian military, U.S. Apache helicopters were essential to fighting terrorism in Sinai. Their more accurate sensors and weapons were a critical factor in helping prevent civilian casualties. But with aid suspended, replacement parts were withheld, and many of the helicopters were taken out of service. The U.S. continues to withhold support for the current reform process, paying greater lip service to the importance of inclusion of fundamentalist Islamist groups in the transition process and making little or no mention of the repeated attacks on Christians.
Nigeria is now the second most deadly country in the world for Christians, second only to Syria, in spite of the fact that Christians make up approximately 50% of the population. While Nigeria has seen waves of Islamist extremism over the past century, its latest incarnation, established in 2002, is Boko Haram (which translates as “Western ways Forbidden”).
The U.S. government has consistently taken the position that the conflict is not religious in nature but is rather a function of the poverty and lack of opportunity in the Muslim-majority north. However, Boko Haram describes themselves as deeply Islamic and the nature of the conflict as fundamentally religious in nature. In June 2012, Boko Haram issued the following statement:
The Nigerian state and Christians are our enemies and we will be launching attacks on the Nigerian state and its security apparatus as well as churches until we achieve our goal of establishing an Islamic state in place of the secular state.
Because the United States government interprets the problem as a sociological one, under which Boko Haram’s violence is seen as being fuelled by lack of economic opportunity and a feeling of political disenfranchisement, one policy solution has been to spend millions of U.S. aid dollars on Koranic schools in northern Nigeria. So not only has the United States repeatedly distorted the nature of the conflict, it may be actively fueling it by funding the institutions where Islamist doctrine is taught.
Persecution of Christians is on an upward trajectory that runs parallel to the Islamist awakening and has accelerated under the so-called “Arab Spring.” Yet it has not made it to the top-ten list of priorities for American policymakers, which is ironic, given that our nation was founded on the principle of religious freedom. Reports from North Africa and the Middle East attest to the fact that at least one side of this conflict sees it as a religious war.
Katharine Cornell Gorka is President of the recently-established Council on Global Security and contributing co-editor of the book Fighting the Ideological War: Winning Strategies from Communism to Islamism. This article is the first in a series on the religious war against Christians worldwide.