New concerns, players in movement against persecuted Christians in Middle East

While the Islamic State’s attempt to impose a caliphate in Iraq and Syria may have ended, it seems the movement to fight for the religious freedom of Middle Eastern Christians is still gaining momentum. An early-December conference in New York on Middle East Christians, organized by the Anglosphere Society and attended by RW, shows a new level of both organization and consciousness-raising among Eastern and Western church leaders, revealing some unexpected new actors in the post-IS situation. All this comes at a time of ISIS’s withdrawal from much of Iraq and Syria but also of the Iraq government’s imposition of restrictions on churches, such as on their right to own property and access to sacred sites that form an important part of the collective memory of Christians and other religious minorities (see June 2016 RW). A coalition of church leaders and churches known as the Ninevah Reconstruction Committee in Iraq (NRC) has sought to unite Christians as well as gain a place at the table during the negotiations to reconstruct the war-torn nation. It is through the NRC that Western forms of assistance to Christian refugees and the displaced are being funneled. The conference had a strong Catholic representation, and the work of the Knights of Columbus was highlighted. The Catholic fraternal organization has led in volunteers, advocacy and aid, giving a total of $17 million to Iraqi churches.

The participants stressed the importance of assisting Iraqi organizations through such an umbrella group as the NRC that would avoid the competition and divide-and-conquer attitude that has been the case in the past. Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress (WJC) pressed for greater interfaith and ecumenical cooperation in addressing religious persecution, calling for a counterpart to the WJC to create a Christian united front on the issue. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York Archdiocese said that while it has taken a while for churches to respond to the alarm about persecution in the Middle East, today the issue has made it to the “kitchen table,” becoming a popular topic in churches. “I doubt there is a Catholic parish in the U.S. that doesn’t include persecuted churches in their prayers,” he said. Assistance has also dramatically increased, channeled not only through the Knights of Columbus but also the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher and Aid to Christians in Need. Several of the speakers praised the Trump administration for seeking to bypass the UN as the source of aid to Iraqi refugees since the funds go to Muslim-dominated camps and bypass many Christians. Dolan also criticized the American Islamic community for not taking fellow Muslims to task for their actions against Christians.

The presence of officials from Hungary’s government at the conference revealed how the country has become something of a standard-bearer for the cause of persecuted Christians. Hungary is better known for its border restrictions that prevented refugees from the Middle East from entering the country last year, but the country has also been one of the few to target aid directly to Christian refugees through churches and religious organizations. Tristan Azbej, chairman of the Hungarian Commission on Religious Freedom, was open about the government’s anti-immigration policy and its position that refugees’ “problems should not be brought to Europe.” He said that instead the government tries to help refugees in their own homelands. The government has been the main source of support for Christian villages in Iraq in danger of genocide and extinction. In an interview with RW, Azbej said that the Hungarian government does not limit its assistance only to Christian groups. Other than assistance to church rebuilding projects, Hungarian refugee policies stipulate that reconstruction programs should be open to other religious minorities, including Muslims, Azbej said.