by Brian Katulis, Randy deLeon and John B. Craig
Center for American Progress
The past year has seen brutal atrocities committed against Christians and others because of their religious identity by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS. These incidents underscore the gravity of the situation. As a consequence, Christians have migrated from the region in increasing numbers, which is part of a longer-term exodus related to violence, persecution, and lack of economic opportunities stretching back decades. They have also moved to safe havens within the Middle East, and the Christian presence has become more concentrated in places such as Jordan, the area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and Lebanon...
...Sadly, the picture of the past decade is alarmingly negative. If one of the most important religious groups in the world continues to be forced out of the Middle East, this bodes negatively for pluralism, tolerance, and the ability of the region’s people to live interlinked with the rest of the world. Christians are discussed in this report because they represent a significant group with deep roots in the region, and their status is a barometer of whether those of other faiths or no faith at all will be able to live and thrive in the future Middle East.
This is important at a time when the United States and other countries continue to wrestle with the question of how to most effectively counter violent extremism and to politically defeat terrorist networks and radical ideologies that undermine the overall stability and prosperity of the region. In recent years, the United States has outlined a number of different engagement strategies aimed at highlighting the need for greater tolerance and pluralism as a means to undermine extremism. The 2013 National Strategy on Religious Leader and Faith Community Engagement released by the Obama administration is one example of such efforts.
But the implementation of these strategies has been mixed and not as integrated as it needs to be with overall U.S. foreign policy approach, including military and diplomatic efforts to respond to the crisis in the Middle East. In the meantime, the overall status of Christians has deteriorated over the past decade. Some of this deterioration is the direct result of unforced errors: For example, the 2003 Iraq War and its aftermath had devastating consequences for the Christian community there...
...The Middle East remains in the midst of an extended and bloody battle for power and influence that has allowed extremist groups to rise in prominence. Sectarian and ethnic conflicts are contributing to state collapse in areas such as Syria and Iraq and a reassertion of authoritarianism in other parts of the region. The status of Christians is an important sign of broader regional trends in pluralism and tolerance, and adopting more effective engagement strategies to address the plight of Christians could help produce greater stability in the long run. However, this strategy will only be successful if the issue is approached with great sensitivity and care to the broader landscape of change in the region.