Writing in April in USA Today about the murder of 12 Christian migrants thrown into the sea by Muslims for praying to Jesus instead of Allah, columnist Kirsten Powers stated that President Barack Obama “just can’t seem to find any passion for the mass persecution of Middle Eastern Christians or the eradication of Christianity from its birthplace.”
The president’s response appears to be United States policy. Evidence suggests that within the administration not only is there no passion for persecuted Christians under threat of genocide from the Islamic State, there is no room for them, period. In fact, despite ISIS’ targeting of Iraqi Christians specifically because they are Christians, and, as such, stand in the way of a pure, Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East (and beyond), the U.S. State Department has made it clear that “there is no way that Christians will be supported because of their religious affiliation.”
An Anglican bishop revealed that this policy position presented to him in his most recent interaction with State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM). The Rt. Rev. Julian M. Dobbs, bishop of the Diocese of CANA East (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) is an advocate for persecuted people worldwide. On this occasion, Dobbs was appealing on behalf of a group of Assyrian Christians desperately in need of rescue from northern Iraq.
The serious nature of the threat against these Assyrian Christians is evident because not only do they have permission from their own bishop to leave the country, they have his blessing and urging, as well. Until recently, church leaders have almost uniformly asked the people to remain, fearing that the Middle East will be emptied of Christians. But many church leaders have now concluded that the only way for Middle Eastern Christians to survive is to actually leave.
How bad is it for Christians in northern Iraq at present? In the words of Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Northern Iraq:
Christianity in Iraq is going through one of its worst and hardest stages of its long history, which dates back to the first century. Throughout all these long centuries, we have experienced many hardships and persecutions, offering caravans of martyrs. Yet 2014 brought the worst acts of genocide against us in our history. We now face the extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture from Mesopotamia [ancient Iraq].
In June 2014, with cooperation and assistance from local Sunni Muslim extremists, ISIS took over Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and home to many Christians and other religious minorities. Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans and others were targeted for destruction, and within just the first week of ISIS’ occupation, more than 500,000 people fled the city. The homes of Christians were marked with the Arabic letter “nun,” standing for Nazarene. Christians were threatened with death if they did not convert to Islam, pay jizya and live as a subjected people – “dhimmi” – or flee immediately.
Two months later, ISIS seized control of Qaraqosh, “the Christian Capital of Iraq,” and the neighboring Christian villages, all in the province of the Biblical landmark of Nineveh. Christianity Today reported that the siege displaced one-fourth of Iraq’s total Christian population. According to a March 26, 2015 article in Newsweek, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in their ancestral home of Iraq prior to 2003. Now the number of Christians is estimated at anywhere from 260,000 to 350,000, with near half of that number displaced within the country. Newsweek explained that Iraq’s remaining Christians have mostly fled north to safer areas under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government. “But now ISIS is threatening them there, too.”
Dobbs, accompanied to the State Department by humanitarian Sir Charles Hoare, 9th Baronet Hoare of Annabella, County Cork, informed State Department officials of a plan by one well-known Christian international aid agency to provide safer housing for Iraqi Christians. Christians are trying to survive in unfinished concrete buildings – such as shopping malls – in the Christian enclave of Ankawa rather than in the UNHCR camp with the other refugees, because they are even threatened by some of the Muslim refugees.
The organization purchased used military tents from British troops in Afghanistan to set up on land that had been provided by the local authorities. Major General Timothy Cross, CBE, whose last command before retiring was as General Officer Commanding, Theatre Troops, Iraq, commended the project, explaining:
These are tents used by British Army officers and soldiers – heated, well-supported, with ablutions [shower and toilet facilities]. Double-skinned, good for both winter and high temperatures, these are not the same as the temporary, thin UNHCR tents. These tents are designed to be used for a long period of time. They are used as expeditionary campaign infrastructure. They are high quality.
But the tents need to be transported from Afghanistan to Iraq. Unfortunately, neither the British nor American government was willing to provide transportation. The State Department told Dobbs, “We would have to refigure an entire military aircraft” to move the tents. So instead, the group is working to raise some $778,000 to transport the tents to Iraq by land. Dobbs revealed that the State Department advised him against setting up emergency housing for Christians in the region, saying it was “totally inappropriate.”
Also inappropriate, it seems, is the resettling of the most vulnerable Assyrian Christians in the United States. Donors in the private sector have offered complete funding for the airfare and the resettlement in the United States of these Iraqi Christians that are sleeping in public buildings, on school floors, or worse. But the State Department – while admitting 4,425 Somalis to the United States in just the first six months of FY2015, and possibly even accepting members of ISIS through the Syrian and Iraqi refugee program, all paid for by tax dollars, told Dobbs that they “would not support a special category to bring Assyrian Christians into the United States.”
The United States government has made it clear that there is no way that Christians will be supported because of their religious affiliation, even though it is exactly that – their religious affiliation – that makes them candidates for asylum based on a credible fear of persecution from ISIS. The State Department, the wider administration, some in Congress and much of the media and other liberal elites insist that Christians cannot be given preferential treatment. Even within the churches, some Christians are so afraid of appearing to give preferential treatment to their fellow Christians that they are reluctant to plead the case of their Iraqi and Syrian brothers and sisters.
Set aside Scripture’s command, “do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers (Galatians 6:10),” and look at the reality on the ground. The narrative is false. For the most part, Christians are being given the exact opposite of preferential treatment. What would that be? “Detrimental?” “Prejudicial?” “Unfavorable?” Whatever you wish to call it, to deem it preferential would be laughable, and Western Christians should be working to change the narrative.
On April 30, The Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom director, Nina Shea, wrote about the State Department’s refusing a non-immigrant visa to Iraqi Catholic nun. Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena was to come to Washington and testify about what ISIS is doing to Christians and other religious minorities (all the non-Christian members of the delegation were approved). She received a refusal letter saying, “You were not able to demonstrate that your intended activities in the United States would be consistent with the classification of the visa.” And she was told at the U.S. consulate in Erbil that she was denied “because she was an IDP [Internally Displaced Person].” In other words, Sister Diana would use her non-immigrant visa to remain illegally in the United States. You know you can’t trust those Brides of Christ to keep their word!
In a follow up article on May 3, Shea revealed that the State Department requested that she revise her article. Shea refused, and wrote, concerning the State Department’s actions:
Those who decided to block Sister Diana from entering this country on a visitor visa acted in a manner consistent with the administration’s pattern of silence when it comes to the Christian profile of so many of the jihadists’ “convert-or-die” victims in Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Kenya and Iraq. In typical U.S. condolence statements, targeted Christians have been identified simply as “lives lost,” “Egyptian citizens,” “Kenyan people,” “innocent victims,” or “innocent Iraqis.”
Other human rights and religious freedom advocates also put pressure on the Obama Administration. Amazingly, on May 9, the State Department reversed its decision and approved the visa for Sister Diana. On May 13 she testified in a full committee hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
We do not know if the State Department will also be persuaded to change its mind on supporting persecuted Iraqi and Syrian Christians for asylum in the United States. But at the very least, we should do all we can to change the narrative about their treatment.