WASHINGTON – US President Donald has spoken out about the dire situation of the struggling Christians in the Middle East. In his White House press briefing on 13 August, President Trump was asked by a reporter, in the context of the accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic relations, what he thought of the situation of Christians in the Middle East.
The President of the United States answered;
“…It is a powerful story; and it is something that, I will tell, I have told David (ed. Friedman) and every one of our negotiators. If you look at the way Christians have been treated in some countries… it’s beyond disgraceful.”
“If I had information and if I had absolute proof… some of the stories that we’ve heard; which are not easy, which is not easy to get; I would go in and do a number to those countries like you wouldn’t believe; what they do to Christians in the Middle East; and it is disgraceful. It is disgraceful. You are right. It is a very big part of the overall negotiation.”
“And as countries come in, for instance the UAE has agreed very strongly to represent us; I think they will, very well, with respect to Christianity… because in the Middle East it is not treated well, it is not treated well at all. It is treated horribly and very unfairly; and… it is criminal, what’s happened; and that’s for many many years. I think it is a great question and it is a very unfair situation.”
How to weigh and interpret these statements by President Donald Trump?
We refrain from referring to above statements as merely “electoral rhetoric.” We refrain from the oft-heard criticism that it is merely to appease American Evangelicals and to win their electoral support. And we don’t see it as just another incidental moment of public outrage from the most powerful leader of the Free World.
We are not with those critics who blame the US for decades-long misaligned policies or for its alleged support of dictators in the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity and Syriac civilization. A Middle East where the number of Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians in Iraq has decreased from 1.5 million to max. 400 thousand. Where Iran and Turkey have taken good rid of their Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians. And a Middle East where the number of 2.2 million Christians in pre-war Syria has probably halved.
We refrain from the widely held opinion among Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian intellectuals that the US has done little on the ground for the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians in Iraq. Those intellectuals say that US aid money is merely to appease Iraqi Christians. Those intellectuals say it is to make them forget that after the US removal in 2003 of Saddam Hussein, the US-led dismantling of the Baath bureaucracy and military apparatus happened so irresponsibly that it caused an implosion of the Iraqi state and army. And that this consequently caused instability, corruption and drew in unwanted foreign influence. Critics may say that the implosion of the army, frustration, sectarianism, and the absence of a strong central state authority, led to the rise of ISIS, to interference by regional powers, and to the emergence of Shia armed militias backed by Iran, who, besides fighting ISIS, now exert power in the Nineveh Plain and, instigated by their backer Iran, cause demographic change.
Others such as some Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political leaders complain that the US kept backing the army of the Kurdistan Region, the Peshmerga, while it had done little to protect the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians and Yezidis in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in 2014 when ISIS approached and attacked. Others say that the night ISIS attacked and entered Mosul the Peshmerga withdrew at 3 o’ clock in the night leaving Yezidi fighters facing ISIS on their own. And when ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plain the Peshmerga had done little to protect the Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians other then disarm their militias and retreat to the Kurdistan Region when ISIS came close, and Erbil only to be saved from ISIS by US air power.
The United States of America: Advancing International Religious Freedom
Instead of feeding those critical voices, we focus on recent positive US actions in the Middle East. In early June, President Trump issued an Executive Order on “Advancing International Religious Freedom” and assigned to it an annual budget of $50 million. In the Executive Order he instructed the Secretary of State and U.S. government sponsored humanitarian aid organization USAID to come up with a “plan to prioritize international religious freedom in the planning and implementation of US foreign policy and in the foreign assistance programs of the Department of State and USAID.”
US President Trump’s Executive Order stated that religious freedom is a primary American value and hence should be respected and vigorously upheld and promoted, domestically and abroad. The President in his executive order further stated that religious freedom is a moral and national security imperative for the US and hence should have a priority in the foreign affairs of the world’s most powerful country. By this important step in elevating religious freedom to U.S. foreign policy by attaching direct and severe economic and sanctioning measures, the U.S. policy on religious freedom got teeth.
President Trump’s Executive Order was highly welcomed by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a U.S. Congressional Commission tasked with monitoring, analyzing and reporting on threats to religious freedom abroad. USCIRF makes foreign policy recommendations to the president, Secretary of State, and Congress. USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza called it a great step forward.
The USCIRF and Vice Chair Maenza are ardent advocates of Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians and Yazidis obtaining self-governance in Iraq and Syria. In its 2020 Annual Report the USCIRF called the US government to action and empower Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities in attaining self-governance and a representational security framework in the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar regions of northern Iraq.
In its annual report, the USCIRF also repeated earlier recommendations for the U.S. government to put Iraq on its Special Watch List of countries engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom and to use U.S.-Iraqi political relations to maintain pressure on the Iraqi government to implement its own stated policy to rein in Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units that continue to engage in sectarian violence and prevent the return and rehabilitation of Yazidis, Christians, Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians and other religious and ethnic components in northern Iraq.
Commissioner Maenza, who personally travelled to the areas in question on several occasions, emphasized in a March interview with Sarah Basil of religious freedom advocate NGO “In Defence of Christians”, the fact that this might be one of the last opportunities to save Christianity in the Middle East.
In an op-ed published by The Hill, Commissioner Maenza U.S. and Congressman Ralph Abraham (R-LA-5) also expressed their sympathy and support for the Democratic Automatic Administration (DAA) of North and East Syria, “a burgeoning democracy that promotes freedom of religion and belief.” Abraham and Maenza, called the ongoing democratic project and underlying ideology of the DAA a powerful threat to the status quo regimes of Syria, Iran, and Turkey.
The DAA democratic project can serve as an alternative narrative of society in direct opposition to the dark and dehumanizing ideologies that have spread chaos and violence throughout the region. According to Abraham and Maenza, the DAA is surrounded by countries and regimes that want to see it destroyed because “these countries have embraced Islamic fascism”. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the defense forces of the DAA, were, and are, the boots on the ground in the US-led coalition against the darkest form of sectarianism, the Islamic State.
The DAA can be an example of self-governance for diverse populations and a beacon of hope in the fight against the religious and ethnic sectarianism that dominates the region.
“This community of 4 million people is multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, and multi-religious with many women occupying positions of leadership,” wrote Abraham and Maenza. “Arab and Kurdish Muslims live peacefully alongside Christians, Yazidis, and those of other religions.”
“In fact, the Christian community in northeast Syria is among the oldest in the world with services still conducted in Aramaic, the language of Jesus,” they continued. “However, Christians are under constant attack and on the verge of being wiped out in Syria and Iraq. Recognition of the progress made in NES and the preservation of the DAA will help ensure that Christianity and other minority religions will continue to exist in Syria.”
A birds view of the situation of the Syriacs in the Middle East
In the case of the Christian Syriacs, the situation in the Middle East has become very alarming. Syriacs are facing extinction in their heartlands in Mesopotamia and throughout all of the Middle East.
In southeaster Turkey the historical Tur Abdin region is void of Syriacs. Especially from the Sayfo Genocide of 1915 onward and throughout the existence of the Republic of Turkey (1923 –present), Turkish heavily nationalist, denialist, and assimilation policies were instrumental in putting an end to Syriac presence in Turkey. From the 1960s Syriacs were skillfully maneuvered out of the country into the European labor force. Only an estimated 1,750 Syriacs remain in Tur Abdin.
In Iraq the Syriacs have their historical heartlands in the Nineveh Plains, Mosul Governate and what is now the federal Kurdistan Region in Iraq. The post-Saddam Iraqi constitution recognizes the Syriac people under its Assyrian and Chaldean components and the Syriac language is a recognized language.
In the first half of the 20th century the Syriac-Assyrian component was promised autonomy but woke up from its dream in Chicago. Syriac-Assyrian ambitions were a threat to the new Iraqi state after the establishment, in particular by the British, of the kingdom of Iraq and the 1933 Simele massacre, Syriac-Assyrians were skillfully maneuvered out of the country by its new rulers and the British and planted in the windy city at Lake Michigan.
In 2014, ISIS provided a first major blow to Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian aspirations of turning the Nineveh Plain into an autonomous region with self-representation for the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people within federal Iraq. The second major blow is by the central Iraqi government and its Iranian-back Popular Mobilization Units miserably failing to provide security and reconstruction for Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians to return to the Nineveh Plain with prospects for the future. The third major blow is provided by the aspirations by the KRG to extend its influence to the Nineveh Plain. To facilitate its aspirations it has cunningly but falsely dubbed the Nineveh Plain a ‘disputed area’ and works to control the Nineveh Plain through its Peshmerga forces and proxies.
Pre-2003 Basra and Baghdad had big Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian communities. Baghdad in the 1970s-1980s had more than 700 thousand Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians. An estimated 50 thousand remain, the rest now living in Detroit, California, Canada, Sydney, and Melbourne. An estimated total of 1.5 million Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians lived in Iraq pre-2003. Now the number of Chaldean-Syriacs-Assyrians may not exceed 400 thousand.
In Syria Syriac presence is centered in Wadi al-Nasara or “Valley of the Christians”, the Gozarto Region (al-Jazira), Sadat, and in the major cities Daramsuq (Damascus), Homs, and Aleppo.
In the Gozarto Region, Syriacs – not necessarily representing the majority of Syriacs of whom most are still inclined to side with the Syrian Baath Regime – are co-founders of the DAA and the SDF. Syriacs represented by the Syriac Union Party and Syriac Military Council see in the DAA the secular model for a future united Syria where Syriacs, and all peoples in Syria, are constitutionally recognized as a people with associated linguistic, political and cultural rights.
The Syriac political party Assyrian Democratic Organization, not affiliated with the DAA, tries to achieve the same but through the Istanbul-based opposition Syrian National Council.
The number of Syriacs in pre-civil war Syria was an estimated 2.2 million. The current number is unknown and hard to estimate. (For explanatory purposes, the Syriacs in Syria can also be identified through their Syriac church affiliation i.e. the Syriac Orthodox church, Syriac Maronite, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Rum, Assyrian Church of the East, and the Chaldean Catholic Church).
Lebanon is the only country where Syriacs have a significant absolute and relative share in the population, polity, and religious denominational presence. Especially the Syriac Maronites and Syriac Rum are major players in Lebanon. The Lebanese President Michel Aoun is a Syriac Maronite.
Lebanon is highly sectarian with political positions and the economic system divided over the sects to keep the fragile peace. Only Iran-backed and Syria-affiliated Hezbollah has military capabilities outside the official Lebanese army.
In Lebanon the call for a federal Lebanon to do justice to the highly sectarian society is greatest by Syriac political parties such as the Universal Syriac Union Party (USUP), linguistic and cultural organizations such as the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon and the Continual Federal Congress of Lebanon. The USUP in 2015 officially adopted in its party program the establishment of a federal political system in Lebanon. According to USUP, federalism is the best political system suitable for the pluralistic and sectarian society that Lebanon is. Federalism maintains pluralism and true coexistence without parasitizing on each other and each sect would have its communal rights and can maintain its presence, existence and continuity without fear of disappearing.
Israel and the Palestinian Territory; in Israel Syriacs are a recognized nationality under the Aramean nationality. The Christian Syriacs in Israel eligible for Aramaic nationality are the Syriacs which adhere to the Syriac Maronite Church (~10,000), Syriac Orthodox Church (~5,000), Syriac Catholic Church (~ 3,000), Assyrian Church of the East (~ 1,000), and the Syriac Rum or Melkite Catholic Greek Church (~80,000).
In the areas under the Palestinian Authority, Christians, including the Syriacs, as a share of the population in Palestine have dwindled in the last century, falling from nearly 10% in 1922 to 6% in 1967, to just 1% of the population in 2020. According to a 2017 Palestinian Authority survey, there are 46,850 Christians left in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
According to a survey conducted by the Philos Project, a pro-Israel and Christian advocacy organization, the trend of Christians leaving Palestinian territory shows an “alarming” trend. And “Palestinian Christians are twice as likely as their Muslim neighbors to emigrate”, the survey stated.
Iran An estimated 50 thousand Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians remain in Iran.