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The Politics of Human Rights: Orthodox Christianity Gets the Short End, by Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou

Today is Easter for the world’s 350 million Orthodox Christians, who just completed their Holy Week of prayer and fasting  which culminated in today’s message of transcendent hope.  But all last week and today, Orthodox Christians the world over have been reminded that politics trumps human rights.  There’s a cruel irony in the fact that Orthodox Christians—whose belief that all persons are created equally and distinctly in the image and likeness of God is a perfect expression of the contemporary view that human rights are universal—have been reminded, yet again, that the United States is unwilling to prioritize international law and justice over the worst kind of political cowardice and geopolitical calculations.

Two examples illustrate the repugnant fact that the US is willing to write off Orthodox Christians when it comes to making ethical choices to uphold human rights principles, instead opting to overlook gross human rights violations in the interests of realpolitik.

The first case concerns the abduction of the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Boulos Yazigi, on April 23 by armed assailants believed to be part of the opposition fighting against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.  Well over a week after their kidnapping, the fate of the two religious leaders remains unknown; while no particular organization has claimed responsibility, all evidence points to the work of foreign fighters centrally embedded in the radical opposition, led by the al Nusra Front (officially designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department) calling for the implementation of a Sharia state in Syria.

Despite appeals from religious and political leaders around the world—including the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ condemnation of the kidnappings; the call by the Office of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the immediate release of the detained Archbishops and their safe return to their communities; a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America;  Pope Francis’ call to peace in Syria and an entreaty for the release of the two Orthodox Archbishops; and calls from Imams across Damascus in Friday prayers on April 26 for the release of the Orthodox hierarchs and condemnation of their abduction as a violation of “the sanctity of Christian and Islamic clergymen”—the US has remained shockingly silent on the matter.

There’s a compelling argument that Washington’s moral authority (the “soft power” objectives of demonstrating that America’s domestic commitment to religious liberty for all citizens is the best way to ensure that the Syrian opposition groups will endorse a post-Assad social and political compact that treats Sunnis, Alewites, Christians, Jews, and others as equal before the law) and strategic objectives (“hard power” considerations of preventing the consolidation of a Wahhabi-style, Salafist regime in Damascus and the establishment of an al Qaeda beachhead in Syria, both of which will cripple any possibilities for building a rule-of-law democracy in Syria and will contribute to a dramatic deterioration in the security environment of key US allies such as Israel and Jordan) would be best served by coming to terms with the harsh reality conveyed in the snatching of the two Orthodox prelates outside Aleppo: namely, the self-styled leaders of the Syrian version of the Arab Spring, especially the radical Islamists who have captured the opposition forces, have no interest in universal human rights, much less in the  principles of tolerance which are foundational to any healthy democratic polity.

Unfortunately, the demonstrated indifference of the Obama administration, which has spent the last week fixated on whether or not the red line tripwire of chemical weapons-use by the Assad regime had been triggered, to the plight of the kidnapped Orthodox prelates sends a message that the US is less than interested in a human-rights plank in its foreign policy.  Apparently, the foreign policy of red lines, which amounts to the Obama administration deciding whether to risk recreating in Syria the colossal error of the Bush administration in Iraq, has meant that Washington was also too preoccupied to develop a UN Security Council statement condemning the abduction of Ibrahim and Yazigi—it was Russia, which condemned the kidnapping in a recent session of the UN Security Council.

Paradoxically, Syria’s Christians have been regularly chastised in US media circles for their expressed lack of enthusiasm for the opposition to the Assad government, and the consistent warnings of Ibrahim and Yazigi, that the tyranny of an al Qaeda-Sharia state in Syria would fragment the country and dwarf the oppression of the Assad dictatorship, was dismissed in Washington policy circles as the whining of Christian toadies of the dictatorship of the Alewite minority in Syria.

Hindsight may now be twenty-twenty, but Washington has only belatedly begun to realize the stupidity of a Syria policy built on the adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”   In the meantime, Syria has begun to hemorrhage Christians, echoing the trendlines from Iraq.  Orthodox Christians are disproportionately prominent victims of the overall cleansing of Christianity that has been a hallmark of the Arab Spring events, which has its analog in the annihilation of Christians in Turkey over that country’s history.

Although certainly a violation of the universal human right of religious freedom, the abduction of the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop has been a non-event for the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).  The USCIRF is the key US government agency tasked with monitoring international religious freedom in countries around the world, with designating countries that are egregious violators of religious freedom, and with making foreign policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress for remedies to religious freedom violations. The USCIRF has issued not a single word of concern, criticism, or condemnation of the snatching of Syria’s Orthodox prelates.

But that’s not the only disheartening news for Orthodox Christians during Holy Week.  Equally outrageous was the release on April 30 of the 2013 Annual Report by the USCIRF, in which Turkey was given a free pass by the Commission and, by extension, the Obama administration and the Kerry State Department, for its ongoing, deliberate policies designed to eradicate Christians and their presence from Turkey.

The 2012 USCIRF Annual Report had identified “the Turkish government‘s systematic and egregious limitations on the freedom of religion or belief that affect all religious communities in Turkey, and particularly threaten the country‘s non-Muslim religious minorities,” as the basis for designating Turkey a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).  In an unprecedented volte face in USCIRF’s designation of countries according to a three-tier system—CPCs (the world’s worst religious-freedom violators), Watch List Countries (serious violators that require careful monitoring but which haven’t reached the CPC threshold), and Other Countries and Regions Monitored (cases where there are some actions and policies detrimental to overall religious freedom conditions)—the 2013 USCIRF report leap-frogged Turkey from its position on the CPC list to a new spot on the list of Other Countries and Regions Monitored, based on the patently false claim that “Turkey is moving in a positive direction with regard to religious freedom.”

Once again, Orthodox Christians (Greek, Armenian, and Syriac) are the main casualties of Washington’s willingness to sacrifice universal human rights on the altar of a vulgar geostrategic calculus that positions Turkey as a supposed model for democracy, tolerance, and pluralism in Muslim-majority, Arab Spring countries.  The USCIRF upgrade of Turkey is a case of outright appeasement vis-à-vis the government of Prime Minister Erdogan, which has spent the last decade spinning a narrative of openness to Turkey’s Christian (and other) religious minorities, most of whom have been largely decimated by decades of “secular, democratic” policies implemented by the Kemalist Deep State—read, the contemporary inheritors of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose paradigmatic act as founder of the Turkish Republic was the genocide of 2.5 million Armenian, Greek, and Syriac Orthodox Christians.

The Erdogan government’s expert use of public relations flourishes (for example, widely publicized worship services at the Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery in Trabzon and the Armenian Orthodox Aktamar Church were one-off events totally controlled by the Turkish government) and interminable promises (only a few weeks ago, when Secretary of State Kerry visited Istanbul on Syria-related business, Turkish officials reiterated their tired trope of reassurance that impediments to the re-opening of the Greek Orthodox Theological School of Halki are being addressed) have produced no changes in the constitutional, judicial, and security architectures that led the USCIRF to designate Turkey a CPC in 2012.

By the USCIRF’s own report in 2013, Halki remains shuttered 42 years after its closing and 10-plus years into the Erdogan era; there has been no overhaul of the property rights regime used to economically disenfranchise the country’s Orthodox Christian citizens and strip Orthodox foundations of their lands, so that the USCIRF charactereized random returns of property, as in the case of forest lands around Halki returned to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as “commendable” but “not codified by law.”  The 2013 USCIRF report also cited rising fear amongst Armenian Orthodox citizens of Turkey, because of hate crimes committed against members of their community, the most grotesquely emblematic case being that of an 84-year-old Armenian woman who was murdered in her Istanbul home with a cross carved into her chest.  The Commission obliquely commented that the “Turkish local police promptly launched investigations into three cases, but it is not known if any arrests have been made connected to any of these incidents.”

As for Turkish-occupied Cyprus, the USCIRF acknowledges that there has been no progress on rehabilitation of the more than 500 churches, monasteries, and religious sites desecrated in the northern part of the island controlled by the Turkish occupation forces and the local Turkish-Cypriot administration.  Likewise, the Commission reports that there continues to be no freedom of worship for Orthodox Christians (as well as for Maronite and Roman Catholic Christians) who wish to practice their faith in the Turkish-occupied area, given that access to religious sites for worship remains contingent upon permission from the Turkish-Cypriot authorities.

The facts on the ground (ironically, reported by the USCIRF) underscore that the Commission’s 2013 upgrade of Turkey represents the unadulterated triumph of politics over human rights in US foreign policy.  Commendably, four Commissioners dissented from giving Turkey a blank check to violate the religious freedom rights of its own citizens as well as those citizens of the Republic of Cyprus living under Ankara’s four-decades-long brutal occupation in northern Cyprus.  As the dissenting Commissioners succinctly state, “Since the 2013 report itself does not reveal significant improvements in the conditions that led to placing Turkey on the watch list (sic) in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and listing it as a CPC in 2012, we are at a loss to understand how Turkey can be described as ‘moving in a positive direction.’”

It’s worth mentioning that this latest episode in the politics of Washington’s approach to criticism of Turkey for its religious freedom violations is actually the sequel to political pressures brought to bear when the USCIRF designated Turkey a CPC in 2012.  As was widely reported in the US print media last year, a political appointee in the State Department reached out to suggest that the Commission “rethink” its CPC designation before the release of the 2012 Annual Report, and failing that, encouraged a member of the UCIRF to change his vote on listing Turkey among the world’s worst violators of international religious freedom.  Instructively, the three Commissioners appointed by President Obama dissented from the 2012 CPC designation of Turkey.

Tragically, the 2013 USCIRF report sends an undeniable message to Orthodox Christians fearing for their survival in their ancestral homelands in Turkey and Turkish-occupied Cyprus, just as Washington’s resounding silence in the face of the kidnapping of the Syriac and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo by Syrian opposition militants reinforces the message that the United States views Orthodox Christians in Syria as expendable.  As these Orthodox Christians try to focus on the message of hope symbolized in the Easter Resurrection, they will face the supreme challenge of their own faith—to turn the other cheek to those who bring them harm.  In this case, suffering Orthodox Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean will be turning their cheek, from the deliberate persecution and harm of oppressors in the region, to the injustice and harm caused by the indifference and triangulation of the government of the United States of America.

Dr. Elizabeth H. Prodromou is the Director of International Affairs for the Hellenic American Leadership Council and Affiliate Scholar at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies.

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