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Cardinal Dolan to US Government: Use Leverage to Protect Christians, Not Abortion

Islamic State militants with guns and swords

Karl-Ludwig Poggemann-cc

John Burger - published on 05/10/15

Archbishop echoes brother bishops from Middle East who wonder where Obama's priorities are

When it comes to protecting Christians in the Middle East who are vulnerable to extreme persecution, the United States government has its priorities all wrong, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Part of the reason may be that government officials are not well-schooled in the nature of the persecution, but even more so, they seem to be focusing on the promotion of "reproductive rights" and "gay rights" almost to the exclusion of other issues.

Cardinal Dolan is also president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which conducts humanitarian work in the Middle East, and past president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said that bishops in countries where Christians have been under fire, such as Syria and Iraq, express to him a sense of wonder that the US government makes foreign aid and foreign investment contingent on a nation’s willingness to assure the legality of abortion or the redefinition of marriage and not upon the protection of religious minorities.

"They’ll say, ‘We need to see the American government put the same teeth in their investment, in their diplomacy, in their trade negotiations, in their political negotiations as they do in some of these other issues. And I think they’re right," the cardinal said.

The archbishop of New York made his remarks at a conference on the plight of Christians of the Middle East who are threatened by the advance of the Islamic State group and the spread of radical Islam. The May 7 forum was sponsored by the Hudson Institute, a Washington, DC, think tank. Nina Shea, a veteran human rights lawyer who heads the institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, hosted the daylong conference, which sought solutions for the problem of the rise of radical, politicized Islam and its threat of snuffing out an already dwindling Christian presence in the Holy Land and the greater region. 

Speakers and audience members, who gathered at the Peninsula Hotel in Manhattan, bandied about ideas such as inserting the issue into the 2016 US presidential race, organizing a march on Washington and arming Christian militias. Many agreed that the persecution of mideast Christians, even in the wake of the Islamic State’s dramatic takeover last June of Iraq’s second largest city and its beheading of groups of Christians, is not in the center of American’s consciousness. 

USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers, speaking near the end of the conference, said that it wasn’t hard to come up with solutions, but "It’s not going to make a difference until you get the American people behind it. They really don’t see that there’s a genocide going on."

Cardinal Dolan said he finds that kind of attitude among elected officals that he meets with. 

"They seem, when I speak to them, to be ignorant of the situation. I don’t know if they realize it’s that bad. I don’t think they realize the precision of the target, namely, Christians. They tend to group all of the atrocities they hear about in so many of these suffering societies together. They don’t realize we’re talking about a well-oiled, well-coordinated program of precise hatred and persecution of Christians," he said. "Our brother bishops, especially in the Mideast and Africa, feel let down by us, the religious community in the United States. They really feel let down by the American government."

The cardinal, as well as other panelists, held up the example of Jewish activists who have over the years been vocal on behalf of Jewish causes. Powers reported that a fellow journalist, a Jew, expressed surprise that Christians are not protesting  outside the White House 24/7. 

"It’s mind-boggling to them that Christians aren’t demonstrating, complaining," said Powers, who was married to an ethnic Copt. "It’s clear the president isn’t going to do something about it unless there’s a massive outcry. It’s clearly not something he’s going to engage on his own."

Cardinal Dolan asked listeners to recall the waning days of the Soviet Union, when President Ronald Reagan went to negotiate with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

"Can you remember how effective the religious community was in the presidency of Ronald Reagan?" the cardinal said. "He had in his pocket a list of Christian and Jewish prisoners who were being held in Russia, and any progress was contingent upon those people being released. We need that same kind of precise, personal intervention by leadership in our government and leadership in business—the millions if not billions of dollars that are being invested by committed Catholics in countries where there is outright persecution of Christians. This is leverage that we have and leverage we can tap."

But Walter Russell Mead, a Hudson Institute fellow who also teaches at Yale and Bard College, dissented from the general assumption of the day that the Islamic State is primarily out to get Christians. 

"The core problem today is not the Muslim-Christian violence so much as the sectarian Sunni-Shia war among Muslims, which is creating enormous insecurity, but also because Iran is perceived at the moment to be winning this competition and is also seen to be moving toward a breakthrough with the United States that will end the sanctions and further increase its ability to dominate the region," said Mead, who writes a popular blog at the website of the American Interest. "So you are starting to see Sunnis, who are demographically the majority, getting a kind of garrison identity thinking. You find, for example, people—not the governmentsin Saudi Arabia or other Gulf stateswealthy, well-connected people with a certain credibilitystarting to look at groups like ISIS as important ground troops in the coming struggle with Iran. ‘At least those people fight’ is the thinking people have. So some of the money flow that had been broken after 9/11 has begun to come together."

Mead, who prefaced his remarks with a history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East, suggested that Christians in the region are left with a stark choice: "’fort up or flee’ are the two strategies that have worked in the past," he said. "Peacefully staying and wishing for better days generally has not worked…. So make a decision whether you are able to arm yourself."

That would mean more than just getting weapons and training people to use them. "It’s having a sort of organization that can develop and carry out policy, make and keep treaties and have a strategy that people follow," he said. It involves becoming a state, "even if it’s not diplomatically recognized. … Then you have a pretty decent shot at defending yourself."

In response to a question about whether Israel will attack Iran, which is thought by some to be building a nuclear weapon, Mead admitted that he cannot predict what will happen. But he spoke of what, in his mind, is an even greater threat to Israel.

"Not just Israel but countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, are not prepared to sit there passively while Iran reaches for a kind of regional domination," Mead offered. "One big failure that the US and others in the West made was failing to understand that if you want to go for nuclear negotiations with Iran…you needed a strong Syria policy as the counterpart to an effective negotiation that, in trying to get control of Syria, or keep Assad in control of Syria, Iran is essentially trying to build a ‘Shia crescent’—Iraq, Syria, Lebanon in this arcand this is a deadly threat to Israel. In some ways it’s a deadlier threat than a nuclear weapon because, unless a true madman comes in, Israel can deter Iran through nuclear weapons. This is an existential threat to the Sunni world as it understands things, as well as to Israel. I don’t think they’re going to just sit back. If we had done something in Syria, I doubt you would have seen the rise of ISIS in the way we have. I think you would not have seen some of the stresses on the Christian community, both in Syria and Iraq. We would really have a negotiation with Iran; at that point it would have lost its grip on Syria. Is it willing to come to terms as one member of that region or not? That could have been a very useful negotiation and a better legacy for the president than the one he’s likely to have."

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

Christians in the Middle EastIslamist MilitantsReligious Freedom
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