Saving Syrian and Iraqi Christians

Persecuted Christians from around the world and their advocates and supporters will descend on Washington this month for the World Summit on Persecuted Christians. A three-day event sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, the World Summit promises to attract the attention of senior political figures and generate welcome media attention.

According to the Pew Research Center, Christians are the world’s most widely persecuted faith community. The systematic oppression of Christians, ranging from nonviolent discrimination to acts of extreme violence, is taking place in more than 75 percent of the countries of the world. But persecution is most severe in the Middle East. The “religious cleansing” of Christians in Iraq and Syria is calamitous.

Alarmed by the hijacking of the “Arab Spring” by violent Islamist forces, my organization, Christian Solidarity International, issued a genocide alert for the Middle East in the autumn of 2011. We warned that conditions for the eradication of Christians and other religious minorities were rapidly multiplying throughout the region. By the end of 2015, Pope Francis labeled this reality in Iraq and Syria “a kind of genocide.”

Since the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, Iraq’s Christian population has plummeted from more than 1 million to roughly 200,000. Most who remain are destitute, living in misery as internally displaced people. They would seize any opportunity to leave the anti-Christian sectarian violence wracking their homeland for a new life in the West.

Few members of the Iraqi Christian remnant believe that they will ever have a persecution-free future in Iraq, whether or not the Islamic State is militarily defeated. As far as they are concerned, Operation Iraqi Freedom resulted in freedom for violent religious supremacists.

Many persecuted Iraqi Christians fled in neighboring Syria, where the secular state in that country accepted more than 1 million Iraqi refugees of all faiths. These Iraqi refugees lived under the protection of a dictatorship that tolerated no political opposition but respected social and religious pluralism. The Syrian authorities made credible efforts to integrate Iraqi refugees, including Christians, into Syria’s religiously pluralistic society rather than isolate them in refugee camps.

Iraqi refugees in Syria, like indigenous Syrians, were able to live and practice their faith openly in peace and dignity. But this changed in 2011 when President Obama launched his Syrian regime-change efforts.

A huge swath of territory, stretching from near Syria’s northwest Mediterranean coastline to the outskirts of Baghdad has now been religiously cleansed of Christians. Much of it is controlled by the Islamic State. But most of the Christians have been victims of other Sunni jihadists, often referred to as “moderates” in the parlance of our organs of public diplomacy.

The great majority of the religiously cleansed Syrian Christians, together with most other displaced Syrians, seek refuge in the government-held parts of the country. But once there, they have to contend with another type of warfare in the form of draconian economic sanctions.

Sanctions imposed by Mr. Obama were ostensibly directed at Syria’s political leadership but, in fact, constitute a form of collective punishment against all Syrians for the misdeeds of a ruler who, after six years, is still in power. Together with barrel bombs, beheadings and poison gas, these economically ruinous sanctions play a major role in impoverishing Christians and forcing them to flee the country, which is why Syria’s Christian leaders are calling for the immediate lifting of sanctions.

Like Pope Francis, former Secretary of State John Kerry also used the “G-word” — genocide — in March 2016 to describe the religious cleansing of Christians in Iraq and Syria. But Mr. Kerry’s genocide determination was limited only to the atrocities of the Islamic State. It took no account of terror inflicted by other Sunni supremacists.

Can the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians persuade the Trump administration to halt the acknowledged genocide of Christians in Syria and Iraq? If so, the conclave must go beyond repeating religious freedom platitudes and routine calls for the rapid military defeat of the Islamic State. It must challenge American policies that have helped create conditions for Christian genocide.

The World Summit should start by insisting that Washington desist from overthrowing governments unless it can guarantee the physical safety and religious freedom of the population it purports to “liberate.” We behold in Syria and Iraq the bizarre spectacle of a regime-changing liberator — one claiming to lead a “global democratic revolution,” to use the words of George W. Bush, or a “democratic transition,” as termed by Barack Obama — unable or unwilling to match the religious freedom guaranteed by iron-fisted dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar Assad.

The World Summit should also endorse the principles underpinning the Stop Arming Terrorists Act sponsored by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Hawaii Democrat, and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican. This legislation, if passed, would prohibit the United States from arming and otherwise supporting the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and those that collaborate with them. Finally, the World Summit should appeal for an end to the collective punishment of ruinous economic sanctions.

• John Eibner is CEO of Christian Solidarity International.