How a New Government Report Confronts The Plight of Middle Eastern Christians

Twenty years ago, Congress passed the International Religious Freedom Act. One of the results of this groundbreaking piece of legislation for persecuted religious minorities across the world was the establishment of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. On April 29, the bi-partisan and independent commission released their 2019 report, which includes recommended actions the U.S. Government can take to improve its efforts in promoting religious freedom globally. 

USCIRF’s 2019 report proposes an excellent series of recommendations for how the U.S. can elevate religious liberty in the Middle East. However, it is important for both advocates and policymakers to not rely exclusively on the report for a framework for improved U.S. policy. Other sources, including current legislation and civil society initiatives, should be consulted in conjunction with the USCIRF report for a comprehensive approach on strengthening U.S. support for religious liberty in the Middle East.

To begin with, it is important to consider a crucial and yet underemphasized implication of the report: good behavior should be rewarded. U.S. allies Lebanon and Jordan, surrounded by instability and hosting millions of displaced Syrians, deserve not only commendation, but increased U.S. support for their regional leadership in religious freedom and tolerance. It is vital for the U.S. government to place value in countries in the region who prioritize this human right and invest in their stability. 

It is noteworthy that in many instances throughout the report, USCIRF delivers recommendations to Congress and endorses particular pieces of legislation. However, it is also crucial to consider the influence other branches of government have on promoting religious liberty. For instance, there are over 70 Iranian-Armenian Christians who have been stranded in Vienna, Austria for over a year because their cases for asylum to the U.S. under the Lautenberg-Specter law were surprisingly denied by the Department for Homeland Security without justification. Fortunately, a federal court re-opened their cases and nearly a dozen arrived in Los Angeles in February. While the report rightly advocates for renewal of the law in Congress, it is also important for the Trump Administration to ensure executive-level agencies are enforcing the law as it was intended. On a similar note, the administration should also consider the plight of the hundreds of Iraqi Christians in Michigan who were detained in immigration raids and who are at risk of deportation. 

On Iraq, the USCIRF report appropriately highlights challenges that Christians and Yazidis displaced from their historic villages in the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar face because of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces. The security concerns in historically Christian and Yazidi villages highlight the importance of H.Res. 259, a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and Rep. Anna Eshoo, that calls on the U.S. to work with the Government of Iraq to ensure minorities can return to their homelands and have a sustainable and secure future there. The report also notes the importance of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, championed by Rep. Eshoo and Rep. Chris Smith in Congress and Vice President Mike Pence, in supporting minority communities and the importance of its implementation. 

Another vital congressional initiative for Christians in the Middle East is led by Rep. French Hill, who has introduced H.Res. 49, which calls on the government of Egypt to improve the treatment of Coptic Christians. Both Rep. Hill and USCIRF praise President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the Egyptian Government for promoting a more tolerant Egypt. Constructing the largest cathedral in the Middle East is an advancement that deserves commendation and is a massive improvement for a government with a very troubled history with regards to Egypt’s indigenous Christian population.

USCIRF’s report and Rep. Hill both do an excellent job of focusing on religious intolerance in the province of Minya. This is home to the largest concentration of Copts outside of Cairo and home to hundreds of incidents of attacks, discrimination, and harassment for Christians. The real test for President Sisi lies here. Supporting urban and cosmopolitan churches in large cities is a good first step, but ensuring rural churches have licenses to operate, perpetrators of hate crimes are prosecuted and security forces protect Christian victims from extremist mobs (and not the opposite, which has tragically occured) is vital. Religious liberty advocates should focus on Minya province to see if change really is coming for Egypt’s Christians.

This last year also saw hopes dashed for change in the Middle East’s most notorious violator of the right to worship: Saudi Arabia. The recent beheadings of 37 individuals, mostly Shia Muslims, only scratch the surface of human rights violations in the kingdom. The butchering of Jamal Khashoggi opened the eyes of world to the horrors that occur at the hands of this U.S. ally. USCIRF has urged the State Department to enact waivers against Saudi Arabia since 2004, when it was first designated as a country of particular concern. It continues to receive sanctions waivers and has never been held to accountability for exporting Wahhabism internationally. We should applaud USCIRF for standing strong in not withdrawing pressure from Saudi Arabia for their human rights violations.

While many in the international religious freedom community rightly celebrate the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, the plight of the Christian community in Turkey or those whose grandparents and great grandparents perished in or survived the Christian Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire should not be forgotten. While USCIRF’s report falls short of recommending the U.S. government commemorate the Armenian Genocide, House Resolution 296 and Senate Resolution 150 do not. 

However, USCIRF’s Turkey report contains a number of important recommendations, including a call for the Turkish government to abstain from interference in the election processes of the Armenian and Greek patriarchs and an entire section on the religious exclusion associated with the Turkish president’s desire to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. 

Religious minorities across the world have a stronger voice in Washington because of the important work USCIRF does and they deserve commendation for ensuring the U.S. government stands on the side of persecuted communities internationally. Their 2019 report is a strong resource for advocates and policymakers looking to stand with Middle Eastern Christians. However, current legislation and civil society recommendations must be consulted in addition to the USCIRF report for fully understanding the challenges the U.S. government must address to stand firmly with Middle Eastern Christians in 2019.

Steven Howard is the National Outreach Director for In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit and nonpartisan advocacy organization for Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco from 2015 until 2017.