Christians in the Middle East are heroic witnesses to the faith, and the U.S. must help ensure they can stay in their homelands in peace, a Maronite bishop who is a leading advocate for the region’s Christians says.
“I think the Christians there are the salt of the earth. And they really are Christ in the midst of the Middle East, with no place to lay His head,” Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn told CNA in an interview. “In my mind, they’re the heroes of today. They’ve faced down ISIS, they’ve faced down evil, they’ve faced down apathy,” he said. “And it’s still these Christians who are educated, they’re gracious, they’re forgiving.”
Bishop Mansour spoke with CNA ahead of multiple planned advocacy campaigns for Christians of the Middle East. The annual summit of the advocacy group In Defense of Christians will be held in Washington, D.C. Oct. 24-26. It will focus on “American Leadership and Securing the Future of Christians in the Middle East,” and will feature advocacy especially at the offices of members of Congress. Special guests will include Catholicos Aram I, of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Patriarch Youssef Absi of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and Patriarch Moran Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rai, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch.
In Defense of Christians has also planned an action campaign in the days leading up to the summit, where U.S. Christians can pray for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, advocate for them, and support aid organizations that serve religious minorities in the region. Christians in the region have suffered for generations, but in recent years their plight has become especially dire.
Even before the rise of Islamic State in 2014, Christians had been steadily leaving Iraq, and the Syrian civil war had already been boiling for several years. In 2014 the Islamic State captured large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, waging a genocidal campaign against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the areas. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled their homes in Iraq, and many have left Iraq for good or have still been unable to return home. Over half of Iraq’s Christians have been displaced since 2014, and up to 50,000 have left the country, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association reported in August.
Meanwhile, in Syria, while Christians made up about 10 percent of the country’s population before the civil war began in 2011, that number might be down to around four or five percent, Bishop Mansour estimated. The overall number of Christians there has fallen almost by half since 2010, CNEWA estimated.
In Egypt, Christians have been the victims of ongoing violence and harassment by Muslim neighbors in the more remote parts of the country, and in recent months they have been the target of terror attacks by Islamic State affiliates. Although Egypt contains the largest number of Christians of any country in the region, there is now concern that Christians may begin leaving their homes if the situation continues to worsen.
In Pakistan, Christians are attacked for “blasphemy” with impunity, suffering violence or imprisonment for alleged offenses that may require no evidence for conviction. The government of Turkey has seized church properties without much pushback on the international stage, Bishop Mansour said.
What can concretely be done to help the beleaguered Christians of the Middle East and South Asia? Prayer is the most important step, Bishop Mansour said, especially prayer for unity and for solidarity.
Also, Christians in the U.S. must seek to give what they can to humanitarian aid groups like Catholic Relief Services, CNEWA, and the Knights of Columbus. However, advocacy is also key, Bishop Mansour said, and Christians must push the U.S. to be a leader on the global stage in defending persecuted Christians around the world.
For the problems facing Christian genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria, this would mean the U.S. working for peace in both countries, and advocating for the treatment of Christians as equal citizens entitled to the same rights as their neighbors. This might mean a change from the same old policies which may have benefitted certain parties in the region but have failed to help religious minorities like the Christians.
“They don’t think carefully of the Christians on the ground,” Bishop Mansour said of U.S. presidential administrations of both political parties. U.S. “humanitarian outreach” should focus on those who need it most and should not be just “a one size fit-all” policy, he said. Christians in Iraq have been almost entirely dependent upon the local Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Erbil and aid groups for basic food, clothing, and shelter — U.S. humanitarian aid has reportedly bypassed them.
Although the U.S. State Department has not allowed aid to flow through church groups, a bill that recently passed the U.S. House would amend that. The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act would allow U.S. aid to go through organizations serving the populations who need the aid the most, including Iraq’s Christians.
Although Islamic State forces have been cleared from most of the Nineveh Plain where Iraq’s Christians once lived, many of the residents have been unable to return home. The obstacles to their security and livelihood, not to mention their financial needs at the moment, are too great. And for Christians to live there long-term would require stability and security, something the government of Iraq would need to guarantee.
It is “very important for the United States government to work with the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional authorities to secure safety,” Bishop Mansour said. “There needs to be more security.”
In Syria, the U.S. should move for a “negotiated settlement” to the conflict, “which means we have to talk to Russia, and to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” Bishop Mansour said. If nothing is done to mediate the six year-long conflict there, the remaining Christians might leave for good. “I’m afraid what would happen if there’s no superpower negotiations that bring about peace,” he said.
America must be a leader on the world stage, he said, and Pope Francis has already recognized this. “He sees America as a place where we can make good things happen in the world. Also, if we’re not careful, we can make bad things happen in the world,” Bishop Mansour said. The Pope, during his 2015 visit to the U.S., urged the U.S. bishops to “be men of communion…for the sake of the world outside.”
Is there a future for Christians in the Middle East? The U.S. must help ensure that there is one, Bishop Mansour said, because Christians are examples of peace and forgiveness amid sectarian strife. If they leave the region for good, the hopes for peace could leave with them. “Anywhere where there are Christians in the world, we should do everything we can to back them up when they are minorities so that they can play their proper role,” he said.