Restrictions on Religion Growing in Middle East

Panel discusses growing religious intolerance in the Middle East and American apathy

Iranian Christians attend Christmas mass in Tehran / AP
June 17, 2013

Religious minorities in the Middle East are increasingly threatened as the U.S. government stands by idly, current and former government officials and private sector leaders said Monday afternoon at a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.) and others painted a bleak picture of religious freedom in the Middle East, especially for Christians and Jews. The U.S. government is not engaging with the issue, they said.

Getting the State Department and the federal government to engage with the issue of religious freedom in the Middle East is "like pulling teeth," said Robert Destro, a law professor at the Catholic University of America who has been heavily involved with religious freedom issues.

Wolf, who authored the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, outlined his interactions with religious minority groups in various countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, including Egypt and Iraq, in a wide-ranging address to the capacity crowd in a room at the Wilson Center.

The political upheaval in Egypt is making it more difficult for religious minorities to exist alongside the Muslim majority, as the hardline Muslim Brotherhood is consolidating power under Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

He noted that both Jews and Christians are being pushed out of several countries in the Middle East.

"Except for Israel, [Jews’] once vibrant communities in countries throughout the region are now decimated. In 1948 there were roughly 150,000 Jews in Iraq; today four remain. In Egypt, there were once as many as 80,000 Jews; now roughly 20 remain," Wolf said.

Christians are experiencing a similar exodus, Wolf said.

"If, as appears to be happening, the Middle East is effectively emptied of the Christian faith, this will have grave geopolitical implications and does not bode well for the prospects of pluralism and democracy in the region," Wolf said.

Wolf accused America of being "uninterested in advocating for religious freedom and other basic human rights" around the world, and pointed to American indifference to the genocide in Darfur and Chinese human rights violations as examples.

"America has always been a friend to the oppressed, the persecuted, the forgotten," Wolf said. "But sadly today, that allegiance is in question as religious freedom and human rights abuses around the globe increasingly go unaddressed and unanswered."

Religion plays a very important role in the region, a fact that is underappreciated by the State Department and other international actors.

"There’s not a good sense for the religious dynamism of the region," said Destro.

The Syrian civil war arose repeatedly throughout the discussion. Iran, a Shiite country, and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah are fighting to maintain the Assad regime’s power in Syria. Assad’s fall would mean Iran loses an ally in a Sunni-dominated region of the world.

Chris Seiple, president of the Institute for Global Engagement, called for a strategic vision for how America can engage the world with this issue despite the great uncertainty over the future of the region.

"That’s called leadership," he said. "We don’t have any in this country on this issue."

Seiple and the other panelists also called for greater engagement on issues of faith at both the governmental and societal levels.

Wolf and Marshall Breger, another law professor at the Catholic University of America, pointed to President Ronald Reagan’s approach to the issue as a good example of how the U.S. government should tackle religious restrictions around the world.

Reagan’s secretary of state would begin meetings with high-level officials of the Soviet Union by discussing the plight of Jews in their country, Berger said—an indication of how much Reagan cared about the issue. Wolf called this the "Scoop Jackson-Ronald Reagan idea of advocating for" specific individuals.

"There is something magic about breaking bread with somebody," Wolf said.