NEW YORK—The humanitarian crisis in Syria for the country’s historic Christian population, as well as the religious refugees who have sought asylum there from other oppression in the Middle East, has grown acute over the last year. Church leaders and children of Christian families have been kidnapped. Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria have left for other neighboring countries.
On Sept. 5, al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebels overran a government roadblock to attack the historic Christian town of Maaloula, killing at least 10 and forcing residents to flee. Rebels also have targeted Christian communities in the north and elsewhere, insisting that Christians convert to Islam and destroying churches and residences.
But when on Monday someone asked the U.S. government official responsible for speaking on behalf of oppressed religious minorities about the crisis, she declined to comment.
U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, who was visiting New York, spoke at length to representatives of nongovernmental organizations at the United Nations’ U.S. Mission on Monday. In the course of the discussion, a representative from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) asked Cook, according to a recording of the meeting: “What is the U.S. doing to protect minority religious groups in Syria and how is this being factored into potential U.S. military operations?”
Cook declined to comment.
“Syria is very much in the news right now, and right now we’re not free to comment on what’s happening in Syria,” she said. “Right now we will refer that to the White House and we respect our marching orders from the White House to comment on that. But thank you for the question.”
I posed the AJC’s question to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent government commission.
“USCIRF is deeply concerned about the increasing sectarian nature of the conflict and mounting violations of freedom of religion or belief,” said Knox Thames, the director of policy and research there, who studies Syria. “The commission has urged the State Department to make protection of religious minorities and religious freedom for all Syrians a top priority.”
USCIRF issued a special report on Syria in April.
Cook spent an hour talking with the NGOs about her work, and never once brought up the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East. But she referenced the power of social media in bringing about the Arab Spring, noting, “We value the input of youth.” The Arab Spring has brought about severe persecution of religious minorities, in Egypt especially. Mounting violence against Christians in Egypt has forced at least 100,000 Coptic Christians to flee the country in the last two years, along with many evangelicals.
In a Powerpoint presentation about her office’s work, Cook did mention Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian Christian who is in jail in Iran’s Evin Prison for evangelizing. In response to a question about Pakistan, she said that the State Department was working with the country “on many, many levels.”
While an appointee of the president, the ambassador is supposed to be something of a thorn to the foreign policy establishment by bringing up religious freedom violations. According to the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which created Cook’s post, the ambassador has the responsibility “to advance the right to freedom of religion abroad, to denounce the violation of that right, and to recommend appropriate responses by the United States government when this right is violated.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did bring up the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East forcefully at certain points in her tenure, acknowledging at one hearing, “This has not gotten the level of attention and concern that it should.” In 2011, Michael Posner, then the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor (he has since left for the private sector), even brought up the serious threat to Christians in Syria. Posner’s department oversees the office of international religious freedom. The State Department has not been as vocal this year on the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., pushed earlier in the year to create a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East. When a reporter asked State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell about Wolf’s proposal in April, Ventrell responded, “We already have an ambassador, we have an envoy, ambassador at large for international religious freedom issues, who works very actively on these issues at the State Department.”