The Huffington Post
December 31, 2011
Here's a recent headline in The Guardian: "Gaza Christians long for days before Hamas cancelled Christmas."
As a non-Christian, I'm curious about the reaction.
Or when the media reports on attacks on Coptic Christians, an estimated ten percent of the Egyptian population.
One such piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal on December 24. It focused on deadly assaults on Christians and their churches, while authoritative sources, including the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, document patterns of discrimination against Coptic Christians. A result has been the steady flow of emigrants from Egypt.
I'm also curious about the reaction when the media notes the Christian population of Iraq has dropped precipitously, as people leave the country in droves for fear of their future.
Or when Saudi Arabia shows zero tolerance for public worship or other activity by non-Muslim communities.
Remember during the 1990-91 Gulf War, when America sent its troops to the kingdom to protect it against possible attack from Saddam Hussein's Iraq? Our men and women in uniform were asked to risk their lives to defend the Saudis, but were told to keep any cherished religious symbols, such as a cross or Star of David, out of sight, lest they "offend" the host nation. Not much has changed since then for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Or when, for the second year in a row, a Muslim terrorist group in Nigeria proudly claims responsibility for deadly attacks on Christian worshipers attending Christmas services. This year, the death toll was at least 39, with many more wounded.
Looking for reaction, what I find is mostly deafening silence.
Sure, there are perfunctory statements issued here and there, but that's about it. What's missing is the outrage. Targeting any religious community writ large, be it Sufi or Ismaili Muslim, Baha'i, Chaldean or Coptic Christian, Jewish, or whomever, should trigger a thunderous global response.
I come from a community where there was a daily vigil in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington for 20 years - yes, 20 years - to protest the plight of Jews in the USSR. The goal was to let the Kremlin know the world wouldn't remain silent. By the way, many non-Jews laudably joined, understanding that such out-and-out bigotry towards any faith group demanded universal condemnation.
To be sure, there had been earlier discussions within the Jewish community about the respective merits of public activity versus private diplomacy. Advocates of the latter were fearful that drawing public attention might only exacerbate problems for beleaguered Jews behind the Iron Curtain.
That debate evoked for me the story of the two partisans about to be shot by a Nazi firing squad. The officer in charge asked if they had anything to say before being executed. One said he didn't. By contrast, the other began cursing at the Nazis, which prompted a caution from his comrade, "Shh, we don't want to get them still angrier at us!"
Clearly, private diplomacy, without the thunder of the streets, was not going to get far, so long as Soviet oppression persisted. Moscow had to know it couldn't rely on a somnolent or snookered public in the West. And those Western governments, which might have been content to issue an occasional statement of concern while in reality conducting business as usual, were also put on notice.
Every situation is in some way unique. But there are commonalities as well in how to respond.
What should be abundantly clear, above all, is that indifference or inaction is not a strategy in the face of religious bigotry, nor should it be a prescription for a good night's sleep.
First, countries have obligations under international agreements and covenants they have signed and ratified, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Allowing them, or groups within their borders, to trample with impunity on such bedrock rights as freedom of worship and equal protection under the law makes a mockery of their commitments. They should be named, blamed, and shamed if they don't change.
By not ensuring that those responsible for the intolerance and violence are held accountable, governments, old and new, in these countries, are actually encouraging further violence against religious minorities.
When the Soviet Union endorsed the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, it never for a moment thought anyone would actually hold it to the human rights standards set forth. But Helsinki monitoring groups sprouted up in the Soviet bloc and, to support them, in the West as well. The impact was quite profound.
Second, Coptic Christians, to take one example, are not "guests" in Egypt, nor should they be allowed to be depicted in this way.
They happen to predate Islam's arrival in Egypt by many centuries. They are not there by sufferance of the majority. Cairo cannot claim to be on the path to democracy, or invoke high-minded principles in lofty documents, if, in the real world, minorities live in fear.
Third, complicit countries must be made to understand that they cannot get away with countenancing such behavior without paying a price in their relations with the West - and many do care about their ties with the U.S. If we fail to make this clear, or if we simply give lip service in the belief there are higher "interests" at stake, we only make matters worse, both for the vulnerable groups and for any prospect of democracy and the rule of law.
If now is not the time to stand up, speak out, and be counted, when is?
How many more Christian churches have to be attacked, how many more Christian worshipers have to be killed, how many more Christians have to pray in fear of harassment, and how many more Christian families have to emigrate before the silence is truly broken?
*An earlier blog on this subject, "Christians at Risk: A Jew's Concern," can be read here.
For more information, visit ajc.org.