There are many ways of seeing the independence vote, but surely one is the failure here -- again -- of an Arab government to make it possible for Christians to live in peace and security. In fact the only Christian community in the Middle East that appears to be growing is that in Israel. The last few weeks have seen violence against Christians in Egypt and Iraq, and the rise of Hizballah in Lebanon has cornered the Maronite community there in many ways as well. Here the southern Sudanese are lucky, for the geography of those other countries makes thoughts of independence for their Christian minorities impossible. Christians in most of the Middle East will have to continue their difficult struggle for civil equality, personal safety, political power, and full religious freedom.
Cliff May, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is blunt about the extent of the problem. He e-mails me:
I think what's taking place is nothing less than the religious and ethnic cleansing of the Muslim world.
Christians are being particularly targeted -- churches attacked in Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Philippines; the assassination in Pakistan of a Muslim politician who dared defend a Christian woman sentenced to death for "insulting" Islam.
Other religious and ethnic minorities are also suffering intense persecution -- the black Muslims of Darfur, the Bahai of Iran, the Kurds, Sufis and Ahmadis in Pakistan, and of course the vicious anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism one finds throughout the region.
I think this is the most important issue not being reported by the mainstream media, not being studied by academics, not being taken up at the UN or made a priority by the large human rights groups.
The way to reverse this, of course, is through presidential leadership. Cliff surmises: "It would be useful for President Obama to speak out, but my guess is that those he trusts are advising against it -- indeed, are not connecting the dots and seeing a pattern."
Lela Gilbert, a Jerusalem-based fellow with the Hudson Institute who has written extensively on Christian persecution, sees that pattern quite clearly. She tells me:
"Those of us concerned with religious freedom have written for years about the plight of the largely-Christian South Sudanese. Anyone who has paid attention knows all too well the level of religiously-driven atrocities they have endured over decades of forced Islamization at the hands of the Khartoum government. Since 1983, President Omar al-Bashir's jihadi militias have repeatedly swept across South Sudan, murdering and mutilating, raping, seizing slaves, and leaving an unspeakable trail of blood and scorched earth: Two million dead, and nearly five million displaced, the majority being Christians and animists. The degree of carnage, which includes ongoing abuses in Darfur, has been so great that Bashir faces genocide charges in the International Criminal Court.
In a time when the persecution of Christians throughout the Muslim world is escalating dramatically - most recently demonstrated in Iraq, Egypt, Iran and Nigeria -President Obama's January 8 editorial statement, "In Sudan, an Election and a Beginning" in the New York Times is oddly vacuous. There is no mention of religious freedom or persecution, Christianity or Islam. The word "minority" is the only feeble hint: "The safety and citizenship of all Sudanese, especially minorities -- southerners in the north and northerners in the south -- have to be protected." Even that reflects a disturbing equivalency, implying that the North and South are similarly inclined toward abuse.
I would suggest this is a central failing of Obama's "Muslim Outreach." He has largely told Muslim leaders what they want to hear. He told Iran in the opening weeks of his administration that America's lack of humility had spurred anti-Americanism. He told the crowd in Cairo that Palestinians were akin to enslaved African Americans. He has told the Palestinians that the root of their conflict with Israel is the settlements.
All of that is both inaccurate and unhelpful. True outreach should include a clear enunciation of our interests and our expectations of states who want good relations with the U.S. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak needs to end his thuggish tactics if he wants American aid and investment to keep flowing. The Saudis need to make good on the promise to President George W. Bush to remove anti-Semitic references and intolerant rhetoric from text books. The Palestinian National Authority needs to stop naming town squares after terrorists. And, yes, the Muslim countries need to end persecution and discrimination of Christians and Jews in their countries.
NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based group, agrees. "Christians in much of the Middle East - including Egypt, Iraq, and Gaza - face intense religious persecution and violent attacks, but they gets very little attention from NGOs and UN bodies claiming to promote universal human rights," says Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor. "As the deadly terror attacks against Christian minorities increase, the Obama administration has the obligation of placing these issues at the top of the international human rights agenda."
It may be difficult to devise effective sanctions for abuse of religious minorities. But if we don't deliver candid assessments, we will accomplish nothing. Perhaps another trip to Cairo is in order. And this time, the president could present the inconvenient truths about the Muslim nations' treatment of women, Christians, dissidents and democracy advocates.