By BISHOP EDWARD J. BURNS
A BISHOP’S PERSPECTIVE, in the Juneau Empire – September 14, 2014
The horrific videotaped beheadings last month of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff have become emblematic of the ruthless barbarism of the so-called Islamic State and its fighters and supporters. Also known as ISIS, this extremely violent radical Islamic movement has become notorious for mass killings of captured Syrian and Iraqi soldiers; threatening Christians and other religious minorities with death or dispossession and expulsion unless they convert to Islam; genocidal violence against the Yezidi religious minority; enslavement and coerced “marriage” of captured Yezidi, Christian and Shia women and girls and the barbarous stoning, crucifixion and beheading of hostages like Foley and Sotloff and those deemed by ISIS to have violated sharia law.
Last Wednesday night, the President outlined his strategy for defeating the self-declared Islamic State, which currently controls large parts of Syria and western and northern Iraq. The United States and its allies in Europe and in the region will attack ISIS militarily in Iraq and Syria while providing the Iraq and the Kurdish peshmerga with the arms and training to defend themselves against ISIS attack.
Although downplayed in the President’s speech, this new resolve to stop the advance of ISIS is a direct response to the plight of Iraq’s minority Christians, tens of thousands of whom were forced to flee to Iraqi Kurdistan in July and August. Alongside them are thousands of Yezidi believers who fear they will be killed or enslaved if ISIS fighters overrun their last places of refuge in northern Iraq.
Christians who have taken refuge in northern Iraq are the remnant of a once-thriving community that is now largely in exile in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, many having been forced to flee a second time after first having sought refuge in Syria. Driven from their homes in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul in the chaotic sectarian civil war that erupted in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Christian community of Iraq, which once numbered an estimated 1.5 million people, has been reduced to an estimated 250,000, most of whom are now dispossessed refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.
It is my hope that the United States, working with the leaders of majority Sunni Muslim countries in the region, will find ways both to cut off the flow of recruits and funds to ISIS as well as redress the legitimate grievances of ordinary Sunnis in Iraq and Syria who have themselves been disenfranchised and violently repressed by their own governments.
Defeating ISIS will require more than airstrikes, military advisors and political dialogue. The violent and intolerant ideology of ISIS must be defeated as well. It is heartening to see that throughout the Muslim world, Sunni Muslim clerics and scholars have spoken out publicly to condemn unequivocally ISIS and its criminal and barbaric interpretation of Islam. This is essential, both to make clear that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims and their leaders repudiate the barbarism and violence of ISIS and other jihadist groups and to hopefully be the start of a conversation within the Islamic world about the urgent need for the peaceful Muslim majority to defend religious freedom and tolerance, not only for themselves but for others.
Muslims, both as individuals and communities within the western democracies, are able to practice their faith freely without fear of violence or intimidation and establish mosques and religious schools and other educational and charitable institutions. Their persons, property and institutions are protected by national and local security forces. Their freedom of expression and association is not curtailed by blasphemy laws or fear of mob violence because of real or imagined insults to Jesus, Moses or other revered religious figures. In the United States and Europe, it is not a death penalty offense to convert to Islam.
American and European Muslims vehemently defend their right to freely practice their religion and to be treated with justice, equality and respect. They are correct to do so and should have the support of all who cherish religious freedom.
Unfortunately, in many countries in which Islam is the official religion, legal and social discrimination against Christians and other minorities remains the norm. Their right to freely practice their faith is frequently restricted. Building churches or other of places of worship is prevented either by legal restrictions or violence or both. Perceived or actual criticism of Islam by non-Muslims has been criminalized under draconian blasphemy laws. Religious minorities are discriminated against in employment and education. Muslims who convert to Christianity or other religions such as the Ba’hai faith risk capital punishment in countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia or mob violence and lynching in many others.
Unfortunately, practices that deny Christians and other religious minorities their legal and human rights are passively accepted by otherwise moderate and peaceful Muslims. This has to change. Just as our Muslim neighbors in American society must be regarded and treated as first-class citizens, Christians and members of other religious minorities in majority Muslim societies deserve to be afforded equal status and treatment.