Robert P. George is the new chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a panel on which he has served as a commissioner since 2012. Though he has a personal interest in religious freedom—his father’s family is Syrian Orthodox, and some of his relatives have fled Syria due to religious persecution—his outlook is global, overseeing research and reports on limitations on religion worldwide, involving Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others.
The longtime McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, George is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School this year. He is the author of Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI, 2013) among other works. He spoke with CWR August 26, as the Obama administration weighed options on a military response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against rebels and civilians.
The escalation in Syria came a week after tense fighting in Egypt between the country’s military and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. During the conflict, scores of Coptic Christian churches, institutions and businesses were attacked and destroyed by fire. One church that was razed, the Church of the Virgin Mary in Delga, had survived many upheavals since it was built in the 4th or 5th century. Now it lies in rubble.
CWR: What do we know about what’s going on with the Coptic Christians in Egypt?
George: The situation in Egypt and the equally horrific situation in Syria illustrate the general plight of Christians in the Middle East. These are very ancient Christian communities, going back nearly to the foundations of Christianity, in many cases. Yet, over a number of years now we’ve seen the erosion of these communities, to the point where one begins to become concerned that before too long there will be no Christian communities left in the Middle East. The Christian community in Iraq was devastated as a result of the Iraq war. Many, many Iraqi Christians fled. In many cases, they fled to Syria, of all places, and now what do we see? They’re now having to flee from Syria.
The native Syrian Christian population, as well as Christian refugees from Iraq and elsewhere, is now at grave risk. Of course, it’s not just Christians who are suffering in Syria or in Egypt, but just for the moment I’m talking about Christians. The native Christian Syrian population, which is an ancient Church—it’s actually the Church of my father and his ancestors—is now in peril. My own Syrian relatives have left and are in the United States and will probably never be able to return to their homes.
The same thing is now happening in Egypt, of course, with the Coptic Christians, who have always been at risk and have been subjected to persecutions frequently over the centuries. They are now being brutally attacked, made scapegoats. The attacks come not from simply one sector of the general Egyptian society but from several different sectors. Their churches have been burned, their businesses have been attacked, a large number have been murdered. Again, a very ancient Middle Eastern Christian community is under assault. We will begin to see and are already seeing Coptic refugees fleeing Egypt.
So, it’s a tragedy. It should be of concern to Christians around the world. This is the very cradle of Christianity, the Middle East. These are ancient Christian communities, and it should be of concern to the entire world. Too often, especially in the Western media, including here in the United States, there is an ideological tendency to treat Christians as if they can only be persecutors, and never the persecuted. But if we look at what is happening now to these ancient Christian communities across the Middle East, as well as what’s happening to Christians in Africa and some parts in Asia, you see that very, very often today Christians are the persecuted, and the persecutions are quite brutal.
CWR: You mentioned your family. Are you yourself Orthodox?
George: No, I’m Catholic. My mother is Italian Catholic, but my father’s family is Syrian Orthodox—Antiochian Orthodox. They are people of deep Christian faith.
CWR: What about the view that these Christian communities were better off under people like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and possibly Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and now Bashar al-Assad in Syria?
George: No one should express any sympathy at all for horrible dictators like Assad and Saddam Hussein. Often they were the protectors of Christians and other minorities not because they particularly liked Christians or other minorities but because it was politically expedient for them to do so. Their coalitions, their bases of support were patched together and in many cases included some Christians. It is no salute to Mubarak or certainly to Assad, who is far worse than Mubarak, or Saddam Hussein, who was probably even worse than Assad—it is no tribute to any of them to say that, if it’s true that the Christian communities were oppressed as was everyone in the reign of those dictators, they were to some extent protected, and their plight has gotten worse, and that’s a tragedy. We should not be longing for the return of people like Assad and Saddam Hussein. We should be hoping and praying and working for the establishment in these nations of decent regimes that will respect the basic human rights of all people, including the Christians.
CWR: What are your thoughts on the proper US response to the situations in Egypt and Syria?
George: They are different cases, obviously. We have, I believe, a bit more leverage in Egypt than we have in Syria. Certainly in Egypt, I think we need to put pressure on the military government to protect the Coptic Christians, and to make the protection of the Coptic Christians a high priority. We need to make it clear that where attacks on Christians are done with impunity, and where the government just looks aside or doesn’t treat the issue as serious enough to protect the victims, there will be consequences in our relations with the military rulers in Egypt.
I think we also need to make it clear to the Muslim Brotherhood and other factions in Egypt that if they again rise to power in Egypt, we will not forget their behavior toward Christians and other oppressed minorities during this period. If they aspire to any kind of decent relationship with the United States, they must cease and desist, and their leadership needs to play a role in preventing these attacks by their supporters on the Copts and on others. I think that’s what we can do right now.
Of course, the situation in Syria is more complicated. We do not have much leverage, certainly, with the Assad regime. To speak of “the” rebel force, we’re really misspeaking because there is no single unified rebel force or anything remotely like it. There are many, many different factions. Some are as evil and brutal as the regime itself.
Hindsight is 20/20. I don’t mean to be excessively critical. There was a time, I think, in these developments when the chances were better for establishing a decent regime in Syria by backing elements that were in a position to have overthrown Assad. … But that moment seems to have been missed, and it’s a tragedy that no one knows quite how to deal with it. I certainly don’t.
Now, that doesn’t mean we sit here and twiddle our thumbs. We could be applying pressure where we can. The Saudis are very active in Syria. We have leverage with the Saudis and we should be using that to protect the Christians and other persecuted minorities…. We need to be working with the international community to relieve the plight of Syrian refugees, especially those from the Christian community who are, like my own relatives, fleeing.
Having said all that, there is no easy solution. Certainly for those of us who are Christian, the most important thing we can do is pray for our persecuted Christian brothers and sisters in Syria. They’re going through something absolutely horrible right now and they need our prayer and support.
CWR: What was that opportunity we had in Syria?
George: There has been, as time has worn on, the movement into Syria of a variety of different forces, all of whom are lumped together in the minds of many Americans and other western commentators as “rebel forces.” But those are not unified forces, and in a great many cases they are deeply hostile to each other. Obviously there are now Al Qaeda affiliated forces and other Islamist extremists operating in Syria against the Assad regime. We as westerners and believers in human rights would say “a curse on both their houses.” But there was a time earlier on when, I think, when there was a chance that backing, giving some support—I’m not talking about invading—but giving some support to anti-Assad forces, anti-Baathist forces, before the Islamist extremists entered the picture in a big way, might have produced a regime change that would not have resulted in the replacement of Assad with an equally bad Islamist extremist regime. But even if I’m right that such an opportunity once existed, it is no longer there. The radical Islamist forces now are a too big a part of the rebellion, and one of the all-too-likely possibilities is that the Baathist regime will, in the end, be replaced by an equally bad regime tied to Iran.
CWR: What do you hope to accomplish as chairman of the USCIRF?
George: I certainly want to build on the achievements of my predecessor as chairman, Katrina Lantos Swett, who served with enormous distinction, and I’m delighted that she remains a member of the commission and, indeed, is vice chairman of the commission. I’ll continue to work closely with her. She and I believe that the plight of Christians throughout the Middle East has got to be given greater priority. That’s one thing I hope will be a mark of my chairmanship.
We’re also very concerned about Jewish communities. There are some small Jewish communities left outside Israel in the Middle East. They’re under even greater pressure these days than they have been in the past in places like Yemen.
I’m very concerned about religious persecution in Europe. Of course, it does not involve the brutality that we find in the Middle East. But I still hate to see liberal democratic regimes engaging in illiberal practices on the religious freedom front. We see this in a variety of areas. One, of course, is the all-too evident revival of anti-Semitism in some European countries.
Some European countries, even those with traditions of respect for civil liberties, are imposing restrictions on religiously-oriented clothing, like the Muslim headscarf on girls in schools, [and] jewelry, such as wearing a Star of David or a cross on a necklace. This extreme laicism or secularism represents an effort to drive religion into the purely private sphere and out of the public square, and that’s incompatible with a robust and proper understanding of religious freedom as extending not merely to what one does in the mosque or church or synagogue or temple or in the home at mealtime or bedtime, but extending to one’s public life. The robust right of religious freedom must include the right of the believer to enter the public square and to express his faith, including by symbols, and also to act on his religiously-inspired moral convictions about justice and the common good, just as Martin Luther King did in our own country, just as the abolitionists and people of other great reform movements did in our own country and continue to do, for example, in the pro-life movement.
So I’m concerned about Europe. It has not been a focus of USCIRF’s concern in the past, but it is commented on at some length in our 2013 report, and we will be continue to monitor that. There was the recent ruling in Cologne, Germany, equating religious circumcision in male infants with child abuse and attempting to ban it. Fortunately, the German government is moving to undo that court decision, but it’s indicative and reflective of an attitude and an ideology that needs to be taken seriously and strongly resisted. I want to applaud the Catholic bishops in Germany for coming out strongly against that ruling, despite the fact that no specifically Catholic interest was engaged here. Catholics don’t require circumcision of male children, though they permit it. This was not the Catholic Church’s fight. The bishops distinguished themselves by speaking out on behalf of the Jewish community and certain Muslim communities, for whom circumcision is a religious requirement.
On that same note, to go back to the Middle East for a moment, I also think we need to applaud and salute those Muslims who have stood up and spoken and tried to protect the Coptic Christians and other Christian minorities in the Middle East. On several occasions, Muslims have protected churches against extremists and mobs, protected the businesses of Christians, and taken other steps. It’s a mistake to paint with too broad a brush and to assume that all Muslims in Egypt or other Middle Eastern countries are persecutors of Christians. There have been more than a few, to their very great credit, who have not only refused to participate in the persecution, but have tried their best to stop it.
Moving now to other nations and regions of the world, we are, of course, deeply concerned about religious persecution in China, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and other states that are on our CPC list. CPC refers to “Countries of Particular Concern,” countries we are recommending to the State Department for listing so they will be subjected to sanctions unless the administration takes the affirmative step of granting them a waiver. And we believe that waivers, if they are granted, should be granted for short periods of time, for terms, and the administration needs to pressure these offending states—these are the grossest offenders, the worst offenders—needs to pressure them and make clear to them that these waivers are only temporary, and unless reforms are made those waivers will be removed and sanctions will be imposed.
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