No Room for Lukewarm as Mideast Christians Die: Doing No Harm, Doing Nothing, and Doing Something

Last week, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) held its annual Religion and Foreign Policy Summer Workshop.  Headquartered at the corner of Park Avenue and 68th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the CFR, publisher of the venerable Foreign Affairs, is part of a small, rarified group of organizations whose weighty effects on international relations are widely recognized by global policy cognoscente.  Eight years ago, the CFR launched an initiative to bring together foreign-policy practitioners and “religious and congregational leaders and thinkers” whose ideas, experiences, and interactions can give purchase into understanding the role of religion in world affairs and as a variable for U.S. foreign policy.

At this year’s event, I bumped into many friends and met a raft of new people—preachers, academics, diplomats, think-tankers, journalists—from every point on the political spectrum and from a kaleidoscope of religious traditions.  In between the discussions about the efficaciousness and evolution of RTP (“Responsibility to Protect) in international relations—there remain serious deficits in systematic application of a consistent standard which can require collective action, whether economic, diplomatic, or sometimes, military, by the international community in order to protect populations from crimes that their states are unwilling or unable to stop—and the analysis of challenges posed by social media as a tool for religious radicalization, mobilization, and action—religious extremist groups are using Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook with unprecedented scope and sophistication, as echo chambers to amplify hate and provoke violence—I couldn’t help but wonder: Why has the international community demonstrated no sense of responsibility to protect the Christian communities of the Middle East, given the mounting evidence that very existence is becoming ever-more tenuous because of the crimes perpetrated by jihadi extremists who are uploading 72-hours-per-minute of real-time horrors from the killing zones of Syria and Iraq?

Yes, this is an issue about which I’ve posted repeatedly on this blog site, so let me drill down into some specific issues, questions, and suggestions.  I'd like to have a conversation with Orthodox Christians and the Church (my shorthand for all Orthodox Churches, of every jurisdiction, in the United States), about how to respond to the calamitous conditions faced by Christians in the places where Christianity was born. 

Preempting the critics, I should clarify that my focus on Christians and my chat with Orthodox Christians is not a function of sectarian navel-gazing, religious parochialism, or lack of concern with other pressing matters in our world (after all, climate change, natural resource deprivation, and new forms of slavery are but a few of the tribulations that deserve our attention, since they endanger humankind and the planet).  Rather, I return to the issue of suffering Christians in the Middle East for two reasons. 

First, there are the facts on the ground.  Most recently, the declaration of a new Islamic Caliphate whose initial footprint is the swath of territory captured by the extremist-jihadi group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now renamed, simply, The Islamic State, is a gruesome climax to the decade-plus ordeal that has confronted Christians in those states with a dilemma: for some Christians, the perilous flight from their ancestral lands to the uncertainties and degradation of refugee status in Jordan and Lebanon; and, for those Christians unwilling or unable to flee, the daily privations of being kidnapped, facing slow-death starvation, or struggling to pay the jizya, the protection tax imposed on Christians as dhimmi.  There was an ominous symbolism in the fact that the ISIS's terror tactics had emptied Mosul of its ancient Christian population, so that there was not a single liturgical celebration in Mosul's churches on June 29th, the Feastday of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the same day that ISIS chief Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the new caliphate.  The Christian drama is a harbinger of things to come, for Christians, other non-Muslim minorities, and for Muslims uninterested in living under a militant caliphate (their penalty for failing to pledge fealty to the caliphate concept is displayed in the gruesome photos of public crucifixions of Muslims in Syria by ISIS forces).

Second, the Christian drama (Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Emil Shimoun Nona, has reported to international media that every last Christian has been cleansed from Iraq’s second-largest city since its capture by ISIS forces) is a potent reminder of the universal ambit of human suffering endured by individuals because of their belief and faith.  The examples of religious freedom violations, shocking for their global range and frequency, have been catalogued in recent reports by the Pew Research Center, the Annual Report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, amongst other sources.  Emblematic cases include the unrelenting persecution of Rohingya Muslims by the Myanmar government; the repression of Tibetan Buddhists by the Chinese state; the disturbing spike in anti-Semitic incidents in France and Belgium; and the brutal assaults on non-conforming Muslims and Christians alike by al-Shabaab and Boko Haram across east-central Africa.  The international community's shocking indifference to the plight of Christians in Iraq and Syria makes a mockery of the RTP, and sends a message to state and non-state violators of human rights that they are free to act with impunity within and across national borders.  Alternatively, a good-faith effort at collective action to protect the remaining Christians in Syria and Iraq--not a military action, but a combined humanitarian action (foods, medicines, shelter for refugees now living in unsustainable and precarious conditions in neighboring host-countries) and diplomatic initiative (decisive, innovative, and collaborative policies for pulling the plug on support to extremists of The Islamic State and al-Qaeda ilk)--will signal that the international community recognizes that peace is a chimera, absent the uncompromising protection of human rights.  

The approaching July 4th freedom commemoration of the American Revolution provides a moment for Orthodox Christians, living freely and securely in the United States, to contemplate how to make even a modest contribution to improving the conditions of Christians struggling to survive in places like Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul, Kirkuk, and the Nineveh Plain. 

The necessary first-step in constructive contemplation involves avoiding the trap of reducing the principle of "do no harm" to the default position of "do nothing."  One of the foundational ethics guiding United Nations humanitarian work and international human rights and religious freedom activities, the "do no harm" principle is a kind of normative-material value-added calculus.  In other words, efforts to bring aid and comfort to vulnerable and at-risk populations (in this case, the Christians of Syria and Iraq) must occur only if there is reasonable certainty that action (in this case, both acknowledging the problem and implementing relief policies) will neither worsen the immediate conditions or provoke new threats (e.g. reprisals, retribution) against the already-victimized population.

Justifiably, the do-no-harm principle has been a frequent fallback for Orthodox Christians in America who express reservations about public calls for action to come to the aid of Mideast Christians.  However, I sense a very concerning tendency, away from the ethical gold-standard and practical imperative of doing no harm, towards the absolutist position of doing nothing.  My nagging concerns on this point derive from the face-value acceptance by a not insignificant cadre of prominent Orthodox (and Roman Catholic and Protestant) Christians in America of the Washington-manufactured twaddle that justifies lack of assistance to Mideast Christians with such political conceits as "they don't even know what they want, they're not united," culminating in the big-lie statement of "Christians in Iraq and Syria do not feel abandoned." 

The explicit statements of multiple Mideast Christian leaders of various denominations that their communities, in fact, do feel abandoned (see comments by Rev. Dr. Andrew White of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Chaldean Archbishop of Baghdad Louis Sakko, Bishop Elias Toume of Pyrgou in Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch) and that they are seeking humanitarian assistance, should be enough to ensure that the legitimate priority of doing no harm does not degenerate unintentionally and unnecessarily, into doing nothing.  Furthermore, While entreating the international community to act swiftly to provide humanitarian relief to endangered Christians, these same clerics demonstrate their clear understanding of the do no harm principle--in their insistence that aid come to all those who are suffering, in their identification of sectarianism as fatal for sustainable peace, and in their unambiguous rejection of Western military engagement as solution for the ailments of Syria and Iraq.

How can doing no harm comport with doing something?  What can Orthodox Christians do to bring aid and comfort to Mideast Christians?  Over the upcoming July 4th solstice,  here are some thoughts to ponder, some very basic, imminently feasible, options for doing something, options for doing no harm while doing some good. 

First, pray and remember.  Every Orthodox church in the United States should be praying for the safety of Mideast Christians--supplications for peace in the world run throughout the Sunday Liturgy, so there is no reason that special prayers for peace, memorial prayers for those lost, and vigils cannot become part of the daily reality of Orthodox Christians here in America.  Second, teach and learn.  Catechetical education at every level of parish life can incorporate teaching about the plight of today's Christians, in Syria and Iraq and, more broadly, in the Greater Middle East.  Orthodox Christians in America can learn about the realities of life for Christians in the lands where Christ and the Apostles spread the Word, the connections between Christians there and Christians here.  Third, act.  Mobilization, organization, and action to raise humanitarian relief (whether clothing, emergency kits, monies) for Syrian and Iraqi Christians without food, shelter, medical care, or jobs, should be a given in every Orthodox parish in America. The Greek War Relief Association's effort (for more on this, see the pathbreaking research of Dr. A. K. Kyrou, also a blogger on this site) during World War Two is a brilliant example of the capacity of Orthodox Christians in America to mount a staggeringly successful, grassroots, international humanitarian effort.  Orthodox Christian parishes in America can easily become a platform for relief support to  the Christians of Iraq and Syria, via cooperation with respected international actors like International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), the International Red Cross, World Vision, and others.  Fourth, discuss and dialogue.  Orthodox Christians in America have a responsibility and an opportunity to share the story of endangered Christians in the historic lands of Christianity's origins, and wherever possible, to participate in ecumenical and interfaith efforts to bring peace to the world.  For guidance and inspiration, think about the recent Holy Land Pilgrimage of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis.  Finally, go and see.  Speaking of pilgrimages, it's time for Orthodox Christians in the United States to visit and to connect with the Christians who continue to live and witness through peace and war, in the lands of the early Church. Security constraints do not rule out pilgrimages to places like Constantinople (Istanbul), Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and if peace breaks out, to other places in the region.

In the final book of the New Testament—“Revelation,” also known as “The Apocalypse”—Christ, tells the Church at Laodicea, in central-west Anatolia, “So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of my mouth.”  Refracted through the lens of "The Apocalypse," the slippery slope from respect for doing no harm to the error of doing nothing could become part of the treacherous slide into lukewarm. The choices are obvious.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University's Center for European Studies, where she will be Co-Chairing the new Study Group on the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.