The Persecution and Genocide of Christians in the Middle East Edited by Ronald Rychlak and Jane Adolphe, Angelico Press, £17.50
Genocide means action taken with the intent to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Pope Francis (“I insist on the word”) and others have concluded that what is being done to Christians in the Middle East meets this definition.
In the very lands where the faith was born and first took root, the Christian population appears to be dropping like a stone. One thinks of the terrible fate of the 22 Christians beheaded on a beach in Libya with their final whispered Lord’s Prayers audible on the video released by ISIS. Or Christian refugees in places such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, who have no resettlement rights and eschew UN camps because of discrimination and persecution by other refugees. Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church sees Christians in the Middle East “engulfed by a nightmare that has no end”.
This collection of essays is designed to shine a light on how the world could or should respond, particularly through diplomatic and legal means.
Robert Fastiggi provides a useful account of the historical persecution of Christians by different regimes: pagan, religious and secular. He pins the growth of Islamist radicalism on the rise of Western political supremacy, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The Muslim world, he claims, “had been nurtured for years by a mindset of religious and cultural superiority”. As reality continues to bite, Fastiggi implies, one reaction has been to bite back.
Jane Adolphe notes the frequent absence from much public and media discussion of any mention of the Christian faith of victims of contemporary persecution and, in particular, its absence from the discussion of widespread and systematic sexual violence. For example, six UN special rapporteurs made a joint statement deploring the abduction of 276 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram. The statement did not mention that the girls were Christian and the special rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief was not one of the signatories.
Any attempt to respond to persecution because of faith through legal means, Adolphe stresses, “requires the prior acknowledgement that the problem exists”. But, as Al Kresta puts it, “in spite of being rich in suspense, sacrificial love, bloodshed, and heroic courage, these stories of modern martyrdom and persecution have not captured the imagination of our political and media elite”. He argues that disunity among Christians has also played a large part in the underwhelming response to the crisis.
Adolphe’s essay highlights facets of the problem that are utterly chilling: women’s bodies being seen as “biological weapons” with which to populate a territory and control a population; a New York Times writer suggesting that ISIS is enshrining a “theology of rape”; the use of sexual violence as an effective recruitment strategy for fighters; and price lists regulating the sale of women and girls in open slave markets and online.
Nina Shea pays particular attention to ISIS’s purported application of the jizya tax as evidence that it lacks the intention to commit genocide, but finds these claims wholly wanting. An essay about “moving past phobia”, a process which would include breaking the association of Islam with violence, is full of good and wise intentions. However, it cites several passages from the Koran that read like unambiguous commands to slay or enslave non-Muslims, while making no attempt to explain why these verses should be interpreted otherwise. One finishes the essay feeling rather marooned and that one is moving nowhere.
John Czarnetzky weighs in with an essay on the Holy See’s diplomatic response to the Syrian crisis as a whole, which is a useful primer on the structure and methods of Vatican diplomacy, a tribute to the successes Pope Francis has achieved, and a catalogue of the impasses which remain.
Essays on specific legal dimensions of the issue cover topics such as the potential use of the US Torture Act. Kevin Cieply provides a very clear and thorough exposition of international criminal law in which he observes that ISIS must first be brought to “unconditional military capitulation” before a legal response “has a chance to be effective”. This is followed by a similarly thorough exposition by Ronald Rychlak of the “failed promise” of the International Criminal Court.
There are, inevitably perhaps, instances of repetition in the collection and quality is not even throughout, though contributors do strive to maintain objectivity. In this, they have their work cut out. It is not easy to strike a balance between, on the one hand, conveying fully the horror of what is going on and displaying solidarity; and, on the other, conscientiously exploring, in the academic manner, the possible legal and policy responses, while also scratching about for some hope to offer. Measured sentences come dripping in blood. This is a book to be read with a clear mind and a heavy heart.