Last fall, I took out an online subscription to ForeignPolicy.com, because I love international news. Although it’s chiefly for foreign-policy wonks, I’ve been pleased at the occasional religion piece they’ve posted such as why certain Buddhists detest the Dalai Lama by FP’s Asian editor. Or this story about a former Rocky Mountain News reporter who has become an “Islamic Lenin.”
So I was intrigued to see this article that asks why Congress and most churches are silent as Christians are getting literally crucified in Syria and their churches are demolished all over the Middle East:
Last August, President Barack Obama signed off on legislation creating a special envoy charged with aiding the ancient Christian communities and other beleaguered religious minorities being targeted by the Islamic State.
The bill was a modest one -- the new position was given a budget of just $1 million -- and the White House quietly announced the signing in a late-afternoon press release that lumped it in with an array of other low-profile legislation. Neither Obama nor any prominent lawmakers made any explicit public reference to the bill.
Seven months later, the position remains unfilled -- a small but concrete example of Washington’s passivity in the face of an ongoing wave of atrocities against the Assyrian, Chaldean, and other Christian communities of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State has razed centuries-old churches and monasteries, beheaded and crucified Christians, and mounted a concerted campaign to drive Christians out of cities and towns they’ve lived in for thousands of years. The Iraqi city of Mosul had a Christian population of 35,000 when U.S. forces invaded the country in 2003; today, with the city in the hands of the Islamic State, the vast majority of them have fled.
Every holiday season, politicians in America take to the airwaves to rail against a so-called “war on Christmas” or “war on Easter,” pointing to things like major retailers wishing shoppers generic “happy holidays.” But on the subject of the Middle East, where an actual war on Christians is in full swing, those same voices are silent.
The article goes on to tell how various people -- most of them in Washington -- are trying to change this indifference by pressuring Congress, 2016 presidential candidates and the State Department. I found remarks by John Eibner, the CEO of Christian Solidarity International-USA, closest to the mark as to why the White House -- and hence the media -- has been silent about this genocide.
“The shared political interest of mainstream Republicans and Democrats is to win the hearts and the minds of Muslims,” Eibner said. “After 9/11 this became a much more serious theme, and everybody knows it. This is a major foreign-policy concern of the U.S. It’s seen as a matter of national security.”
That means, he continued, that policymakers worry that adopting specific measures to defend Christians in the Middle East “would put us in the position of being seen as Crusaders.”
The article had 4,585 shares, more than anything else I found on FP’s website this weekend, so the hoi poloi are concerned.
I compare this to the immense publicity that the Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union got in the 1970s, such as Sunday solidarity marches in New York that drew up to 100,000 people and the Jackson-Vanik amendment to a trade bill in Congress that demanded the USSR allow Jews to immigrate to the United States if the Soviets wanted a coveted trading status. Granted, the USSR was a functioning government with whom we had diplomatic relations while ISIS is no such creature. But the American Jewish community united around this issue and made enough noise that the media -- and Congress -- listened.
There is not that kind of groundswell of concern happening today in this country about the Middle East’s rapidly diminishing Christian communities. The Assyrians have been asking for a long time for a separate province for religious minorities on the Nineveh Plain with no real response from the United States, which had troops on the ground there for nearly a decade.
The only people who seem to be doing anything concrete are Assyrians in America, who, according to this fascinating piece at Al Jazeera, are crowdfunding an army -- with the help of Kurds and U.S. combat veterans -- to fight ISIS. Other media have done stories on this, but Al Jazeera is one of the few that had a reporter actually visit this army. You find some fascinating stuff on Al Jazeera these days. My fav is their top five ISIL parody videos.
So for the most part, savagery against Christians doesn’t get tons of mainstream ink. Compare what’s been written so far to coverage of the notorious abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners by American soldiers. Journalists were slow on the take at first, but after CBS’ 60 Minutes II ran explicit photos showing tortured prisoners on April 28, 2004, all hell broke loose.
It was the photographs that ignited a global firestorm. Top Arab networks Al Jazeera, based in Qatar, and Al Arabiya, based in the United Arab Emirates, aired images around the clock of torture and the outraged reaction of the Islamic Middle East. Egypt's Akhbar el-Yom splashed the word "Scandal" across the front page above smiling U.S. soldiers posing by naked, hooded prisoners piled in a human pyramid. The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Watan warned that the "barbaric" treatment would rally Islamic fundamentalists.
American journalists were in a catch-up frenzy. News organizations quickly jumped on the story and began exploring whether Abu Ghraib was the work of a handful of proverbial "bad apples" or an officially sanctioned policy. The story dominated cable news and left conservative media personalities like Bill O'Reilly of Fox News Channel charging that the Abu Ghraib scandal was being used to destroy the Bush administration by news outlets with an agenda… The mushrooming scandal commanded the May 17 covers of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. Abu Ghraib dominated the headlines for a month. Day after day top national newspapers brought to light new aspects of the debacle on their front pages.
It was the photos that did the trick.
Images are worth 1,000 words. The take-away image of the slaughter of 21 Egyptians by ISIS on a Libyan beach is not only a photo of the men lined up on the seashore. It’s also an icon done by an American Coptic artist Tony Rezk of the unlucky men that shows them in their orange jumpsuits with a red sash of martyrdom around their shoulders, with angels ready to bestow upon them crowns and Christ in the upper right hand corner welcoming them to heaven.
As bad as Abu Ghraib was -- and it was bad -- worse has been done to the unlucky Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, Yezidis and other groups in the path of ISIS. Do a search for “crucifixion” and “Syrians” or “Assyrians” and the grisly photos are there. But the outrage, the serious news coverage, is not.