Religious Freedom in the Middle East

Monday, November 8, 2021
Corinna Kern, Reuters

Director of Outreach and Policy, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Author, The Vanishing: The Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East; Former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations (2017–2018); CFR Member

Professor of Political Science, University of Notre Dame; Author, Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World


Faculty Director of Undergraduate Research Community, Director of Undergraduate Programs, and Assistant Professor of Political Science, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University; CFR Member

Our panelists examine religious freedom in the Middle East, how international organizations and the United States have responded to the persecution of religious minorities in the past, and what can be done in the present.

EL-SHAZLI: Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this important discussion regarding Religious Freedom in the Middle East.

I’d like to introduce our speakers: Janine de Giovanni, author, The Vanishingthe Twilight of Christianity in the Middle East, former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations from 2017 to 2018, and CFR member; Professor Daniel Philpott, professor of political science, University of Notre Dame, sorry—(changes pronunciation)—Notre Dame—(laughter)—author, Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World; Dwight Bashir, director of outreach and policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The diverse, rich, and centuries-old cultural and spiritual life is leaving the Middle East region. What does that say about the societies there? The impact of the vanishing—and I’m going to use Janine’s word, “the vanishing,” of these ancient communities—what is the impact? How utterly sad, on a personal, societal, spiritual, in addition to political and even economic level? And so unnecessary. Please join our panelists as they examine religious freedom in the Middle East, how international organizations and the United States have responded to the persecution of religious minorities in the past, and what can be done in the present.

So let me ask our first speaker, Janine di Giovanni, in her recent book, The Vanishing: Faith, Loss and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets, what an excellent description, that was published this year in October 2021. You wrote of all the places where you witnessed faith was in the Middle East. And you define faith for you as ritual and a sense of belonging. Can you please explain faith in the Middle East context, as you saw it, and this vanishing of the Christian communities in the region? Gaza, the West Bank, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are all included in your book. I know we only have ten minutes, but if you would give us a synopsis for us to keep in mind while we read your excellent book. Janine.

DI GIOVANNI: Thank you so much, Heba. I really appreciate being here. And thank you to the Council, first of all for having this wonderful event, and also for giving me the time, the space, the quiet back in 2017 to do the end of my field work and begin to write. And also to my panelists; it’s lovely to see all of you here today.

So The Vanishing basically is a culmination of thirty years—I’ve been working in the Middle East for thirty years as a conflict reporter and conflict analyst. And my work basically started in the West Bank and Gaza, and then moved on to Iraq—the wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya, Egypt, throughout the entire region. I really first became aware of this issue when I was living in Baghdad in 2003, just before—2002 to 2003—just before the invasion—the American invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein. And in those days, it was extremely difficult for visitors to enter Iraq at all. When I did, I was followed constantly by the Mukhabarat. But very—in the weeks before the actual invasion, I was granted permission to travel throughout Iraq, which was extraordinary. Because I knew that the Iraq that I was seeing would disappear forever once the invasion happened. And it did, as we know.

But in that time, I went to Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. And it was my first real introduction to the historic Christian communities there—the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Armenians, the Latin Catholics, the Lutherans, the incredible blend of Christianity that had lived there, and many of whom were the direct descendants of the prophets. The fear that they had in those weeks right before the invasion was extremely distressing for me, as someone who was brought up as a Roman Catholic. They were terribly afraid of what would come next if Saddam would fall. And of course, this is one of my themes throughout all of my sections, which focuses on Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Gaza, is that often the Christians gravitate towards the protection of dictators, because they fear—I mean, Syria especially, in terms of Bashar al-Assad—because they fear very much what could come after them.

So what I really address—and each of these areas—and, by the way, people often say: Why did you leave out Lebanon? I did for a very specific reason. Lebanon—Christians in Lebanon are much more assimilated. They have issues, of course, but they are directly assimilated into government and to much more of the economic and social life than the Iraqi Christians or the Gazan Christians, for instance. And they do not have laws, such as the Egyptian Christians, which prevent them from building churches or serving in very high-ranking positions in the Army.

But really, let’s take Iraq initially. And I’m mindful of the time for you. The big issues there—and I continued working in the region following the 2003 invasion for many years, even until the COVID lockdown. So I know the region very well. The eradication, the attempts by the Islamic States to eradicate the Christians, I was in Baghdad in June 2014. Literally, you know, in my room listening to the radio as ISIS was rolling through Mosul and the villages surrounding it in the Nineveh Plain. So this kind of trauma that these Christians suffered, but yet are now returning, trying to rebuild their churches, more importantly trying to rebuild their society from something that was such a violent blow to them, it wasn’t the first time.

And, you know, again, throughout my book I write about the great resilience these communities have, which is based largely on their faith and their historic ties to their land. Their land is absolutely essential to them, to their identity. And this is why we must protect them. If they leave, the fabric of Iraq or Gaza or any of the places I discuss will never be the same again. Society is absolutely—it’s vital to have these people as part of the tapestry. So obviously radicalism is a big—the rise of extremist groups. And now, for instance, the Christians in Iraq, ISIS is, well, I don’t say gone, but they are not as present. They still are lurking. But they fear, for instance, Iranian-backed militias. They fear the Turkish airstrikes.

But there’s also another element, which is—came out of, you know, COP26 last week. Climate change. So Iraq is one of the most worrying countries in terms of climate change. Thirty-one percent of the country is a desert. This has a direct effect on the livelihood of those people, especially those living near the great rivers, Euphrates and the Tigris, because this, of course, for the fishing villages ISIS, again, had a hand in damaging this, as well as the farmers. ISIS destroyed many of the irrigation systems. But also the recent droughts, the extreme weather change. I mean, I worked in Iraq for many, many years—as probably all of you have as well—but my last trip there right before lockdown I was sleeping on a roof, which you always do in the summer. And the temperature at 3:00 in the morning was still upwards of 104-105 degrees.

Same as in Gaza. I was in Gaza again in August. I’ve been working in Gaza since the First Intifada. Climate change is going to really affect these people. And the people I’m writing about are the most vulnerable people. So what will happen if they are not protected? They’ll migrate. They’ll leave. There will be an exodus. The other important point is the young people. We must find a way of giving these extremely talented, extremely resourceful people a way of earning a livelihood, of industry. I suggest, and people laugh at me, but why can’t Gaza be a source of outsourcing, the way Chennai is? The Gazans are the most educated people in the Middle East. Their language skills are the best language skills. Most people I know speak English and in addition speak a European language, which they learned on YouTube because, of course, they can’t leave Gaza.

Gaza very briefly, and I think I have three minutes left, Gaza was perhaps the most fascinating for me. And for someone that’s worked in Gaza since the First Intifada, I don’t think I realized the extent of the roots of Christianity there. But by the fourth century, Gaza was, of course, entirely Christian. There’s only eight hundred Christians left, which is really disturbing, out of a population of 2.2 million. They’re sandwiched between Hamas and the terrible, terrible Israeli-led siege since 2007, which has crippled the economy completely.

The eleven-day bombing in May, part of the reason I went back in July and August this year, even though I had finished my book, but I was doing a fact-finding mission about the damage of the recent bombing, which was absolutely horrific. People who had, you know, started hydroponic farms, completely destroyed. We know more than 240 people were killed, sixty-seven of them children, who have nothing to do with Hamas. And, of course, they targeted journalists, Al-Jazeera. So in the midst of this are the Christians, who cannot go because they can’t get exit permits from the Israelis to go to Bethlehem for Christmas or Easter, which is hugely important for them.

So the two other areas I focus on in my book are Egypt and Syria, both of which have geopolitical dimensions, especially Syria because of the war, where I’ve worked for many, many years during the war. But each individual chapter has individual issues and challenges. And I think what I really tried to do was to give an oral history of these people, because when I was—when I was given this contract to write this book I was told: These people may not be on this Earth in a hundred years, especially in Iraq and Gaza. They are under extreme threat. And we need to protect them. So what I really tried to do was to get their voices—to capture their voices, to capture their situation, and how they remained as a community for two thousand years. So thank you so much. I hope that didn’t go over time.

EL-SHAZLI: You’re just perfect. Thank you. Thank you very much. And really appreciate your comments and that emphasis on an oral history of these people, because we need to record it. Very sadly, because you’re saying that they might not be here. But we’re going to—we’re going to hope for something better. Now, thank you. And let me go to Professor Daniel Philpott, who’s also—his book, titled Religious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today, that was published in 2019.

Professor Philpott, or Daniel, if I may, if you would please, in your abstract you start out with, is Islam hospitable to religious freedom? And you focus on the universal human rights aspect. I have two points, if I may, that you could—in terms of your research—that you could further explain or expound upon. One, in terms of—you state that, and your research supports, that devout Muslims are very tolerant of others. I know that you focused on West Africa, that there were seven countries. But I’m very interested in the nature of governance and its relation with Islam, and then how it matters when it comes to respect for universal human rights.

So the nature of governance, democratic versus authoritarian, do we see that in more democratic countries that there is more tolerance of the Muslim majority, of the minorities for non-Muslims. And then, second, you identify seeds of freedom in the Islamic tradition that actually present the Catholic Church’s long road to religious freedom as a promising model for Islam. Would you also please explain those seeds of freedom? Thank you.

PHILPOTT: Well, first of all, thank you for this wonderful panel. I’m so grateful to CFR for being willing to convene this conversation on a topic that’s very dear to my heart. And thank you, Janine, for a very, very informative and heart-wrenching, in many ways, presentation. And very much look forward to Dwight Bashir’s comments. I’ve admired Dwight for many years, and his work for religious freedom. And so very much look forward to what’s going to happen and continue to happen in the panel.

I wanted to look at the first question about devout Muslims and regime types and so forth by just laying forth a little bit of the landscape that I lay out in my book Religious Freedom in Islam. I also have a copy—(laughs)—here. So published in 2019 by Oxford. And it—the book looks at the question of the hospitality of Islam and the Muslim world to religious freedom and the human right of religious freedom, which I do believe is a universal human right, and have a chapter where I explain why I think that is. It’s not only in the human rights documents and conventions, but I also believe that in a moral sense it’s a universal human right.

In the book I did an examination of forty-seven Muslim-majority countries around the world—countries where a majority of the people is Muslim. And I think this is a good test for religious freedom. If in countries where the majority communities have demographic power to deny religious freedom, if we still see that there is religious freedom there, well, that’s a pretty good test. And the results were that I found three patterns of regimes with respect to religious freedom and governance. And this gets to your question on governance.

So the first, which is very interesting, in that in just about one-fourth of these countries, Muslim majority countries, they are in fact religiously free, or have high levels of religious freedom. Here, I use the indices of the Pew Forum to make that judgement. So in eleven out of the forty-seven, there are high levels of religious freedom. And I want to come to them in a couple moments. But it’s also significant to look at the countries that are not religiously free, and that have high levels of religious repression, and ask why.

Well, in the other thirty-six countries that are in this kind of low levels of freedom category, fifteen of those countries—and in fact, the reigning pattern is what I would call secular repression. In other words, it’s not necessarily—in Muslim-majority countries, it is not necessarily Islam that is responsible for the low levels of religious freedom. In some countries, there is an ideology of secularism derived from the French Revolution, and the West, and the European ideology that is suppressing of Muslims who don’t fit the pattern or of religious minorities based on a modern secularist ideology.

But then, in the third—so that’s the second pattern, is secular repression. The third pattern, which is twenty-one out of the forty-seven countries and makes up the rest of the not-free countries, is what I call religiously repressive, where religious freedom is suppressed by on Islamism. And that is maybe the more stereotypical image of a(n) Iran or a Saudi Arabia, or what have you. And that is a pattern, to be sure, and that is shared by many Muslim-majority countries. But it should be seen side-by-side with the secular repressive and the religiously free.

Now, the religiously free are the most interesting to me, and the most hopeful, perhaps, because they kind of, you know, defy the stereotype of Islam as being unfree that is held by many in the West. But among the eleven religiously free countries, seven of them are in West Africa. I call this the heart of the religiously free Muslim world. And they include Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. I call them the West Africa seven. The other four in the religiously free category are Albania, Kosovo, Djibouti, and Lebanon.

But the West African seven manifests unusually high levels of tolerance on the part of Muslim supermajorities towards small religious minorities. Religious minorities are free to practice and express their faith, and Muslim dissenters from Sunni orthodoxy are free to express their views, and even to exit Islam without penalty. There is a high degree of religious harmony, including the mutual celebration of holidays, an interreligious council among leaders, and even intermarriage. In these countries, religious freedom exists not despite Islam, but because of Islam, or at least the local version of Islam.

A good part of the explanation for them is the manner in which Islam arrived in the Middle Ages, through bands of missionaries and traders rather than conquest, as in the Middle East and North Africa. They were forced to adapt to the surrounding population and make accommodations with local chiefs, a pattern which persisted across history. Prevalent also is Sufi spirituality, which stresses interior commitment and the importance of freedom in the adoption and enactment of religion.

Islam here is robust. These are devout Muslims. They have some of the highest levels of religiosity in the world. And so it’s not true that you have to be secular in order to be tolerant, as many Westerners believe. These countries exhibit high degrees of religiosity on global indices, proving that tolerance is not dependent upon secularism, and therefore what is more important is the particular, what I would call, political theology or notion of understanding Islam, rather than the levels of devoutness.

Now, on your question of democracy, finally, that’s a little bit complex. One might think democracy and tolerance—well, not necessarily. In fact, some of the Muslim-majority countries in the Islamist or religiously repressive category are, in fact, democracies. Pakistan, Malaysia, Bangladesh. And in some of these countries, Democratic elections can actually have the effect of repressing religious freedom or making the problem worse. Namely, if you have Islamists who are capable of forming powerful coalitions and have strong support among the population, they can actually appeal to votes by—you know, arguably to institute, say, blasphemy codes in Pakistan, or what have you. So if democracy means elections and representation, that doesn’t always feed into religious freedom.

However, there are some other countries in which you do have religious freedom and democracy. So I don’t want to say that that’s an impossibility. But we should remember that human rights and democracy don’t always go together. So that’s an answer to your question about the regimes.

Then you asked about the pathway to freedom, the seeds of freedom, and then what might be learned from the example of the Catholic Church. One of the things I explore in the book, after doing a survey of the Muslim-majority world and the degrees and kinds of regimes and levels of religious freedom, is to ask: Are there potentialities for developing greater levels of religious freedom. And that’s where I identify what I call seeds of freedom, which are potentialities of freedom that might be built upon. The idea is that the most promising way to develop religious freedom in the Muslim world is to do so on the basis of traditional Islamic teachings, and not on a secular enlightenment or Western basis.

And here, I find instructive the history of the Catholic Church, my own religious communion. Now, the Catholic Church was kind of a latecomer to religious freedom. It finally declared religious freedom in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council, through the great document Dignitatis humanae, or the Dignity of the Human Person. Up till that time, the Catholic Church had taught the legitimacy of using the force of—coercive force of the state to repress or, you know, restrict those who are not expressing the Catholic faith, or expressing it in an orthodox way.

To be sure, the centuries of the inquisition were long past by 1965, but the basic teaching of religious freedom was still yet to come. And yet, it did come. And if you look back at the kind of seeds or potentialities that had to be developed for that to happen, we could look back to teachings of religious freedom in the early church, meaning the first centuries. We can also look at the perennial teaching that you cannot coerce religious. And in fact, even in the Middle Ages with the inquisition and so forth, the teaching was never that you could coerce somebody into religion. The teaching was always something more like, well, we have to preserve the religious ecology, or the kind of environment—social environment, so that people won’t be misled, and that sort of thing. Still maybe not something we celebrate, but the argument was not precisely that you could coerce somebody into religious belief.

Other seeds were political developments that happened in more modern times. I think the experience of the United States was very important, showing that you could have religious freedom but also a flourishing Catholicism. The development in Western Europe of religiously free constitutions after World War II was very important, as well as intellectual and theological developments on the part of figures such as Jacques Maritain or John Courtney Murray or others that led up to the council.

Now, the tradition of Islam, I believe, and today’s global Muslim population also contains seeds of freedom, meaning patterns and trends that exhibit religious freedom and contain the potential for the growth in religious freedom, even if they remain overshadowed by a dearth of religious freedom. A verse in the Koran contains one of the most direct statements of the free character of faith in the founding text of any religion, namely Koran 2:256, “There is no compulsion in religion.” The verse is not an obscure or overlooked one but has been quoted by advocates of religious freedom over the course of the Islamic tradition, even if religious freedom has been and remains a minority position.

Historically, the Muslim world has contained communities that have practiced high levels of tolerance towards non-Muslims, especially by the standards of their times, including medieval Spain, the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century, Tunisia in the mid-19th century, Iran in the early 20th century, Egypt in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century, and what are known today as the Central Asian republics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Apart from medieval Spain, at least some point in the 20th century all of these regimes later became secular repressive or, in the case of Iran, first secular repressive and then Islamist in reaction. Liberal Islam was defeated by factors extending well beyond liberal Islam.

Finally, today there exists a critical mass of Muslim intellectuals who are argue for religious freedom on the basis of the Koran and other authoritative sources. Examples are Abdullahi An-Na’im, a Sudanese intellectual who has advocated an Islamic reformation that would include liberal governance, Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist who argues for religious and economic freedom, and Abdullah Saeed, a scholar from the Maldives, who has advocated for the blasphemy and apostacy laws. In 2008, a coalition of 138 prominent Muslim leaders signed a statement that affirmed religious freedom, along with other related principles. Similarly, in 2016, 250 notable Muslim religious leader scholars, and even heads of state, signed the Marrakesh Declaration, affirming the rights of religious minorities.

So those are some seeds of freedom in which Islam might follow a pathway something like on the model of that of the Catholic Church. But let me stop there. I have so much more I’d love to say, but I think I probably have run out of time and would jump back into the conversation.

EL-SHAZLI: Absolutely. Thank you, Daniel. And there will be questions where you’ll have definitely an opportunity to add, for sure. Abdullahi An-Na’im is at Emory University, and he talks about, and he teaches law and human rights, it’s very much fundamental to his discourse. So thank you very much. I’m so glad that you mentioned him.

All right. Dwight, if I may, please. Now we’re going to move to the policy part of our discussion this afternoon. So how does U.S. policy deal with religious freedom, or lack of, in the Middle East? What have been successful policies adopted and implemented by the U.S. in the last decade? So please, Dwight, give us background in terms of the commission, its annual reports, and particularly over the last decade what you have been watching. And also, if I may, sort of the special watchlist, and the countries of particular concern. What does that mean for those countries? Are there sanctions, for example? So I will—I know I’ve mentioned several things, but thank you very much. Dwight.

BASHIR: Thank you so much, Heba. And thanks to CFR for putting this together. I think it’s very timely. You know, ten years since the events of the Arab uprisings, so to speak. We’re at a place now to take a look. I wrote an article ten years ago that was published looking at religious—the state of religious freedom in the weeks and months after a number of the events in the region started to occur and took stock of what was going on as far as conditions, and how the U.S. and the international community might respond. And there were three themes that ran through many of the government actions or inactions in countries with severe violations of religious freedom.

First, there was the state sponsored hostility toward and repression of religion. You know, two of the top five, one, two in the world ten years ago was Saudi Arabia and Iran. And Egypt was also in the top five. Today you look, Iran is still ranked in the top five, Saudi’s dropped out a bit, but Syria is now joined Iran in the top five, interestingly.

A second area is social hostility. Again, these are some of the—this is some of the data that Dan referred to, the Pew Charitable Trust that—the Pew Forum that put these out. They’re, you know, taking data from the State Department’s results and reports, ours, a number of NGOs’, human rights groups. The social hostility piece means where you see the communal religious violence, which increased significantly over the past decade. Egypt and Iran were among the worst ten years ago. Now Iraq is still very high, but Syria is in the top five in the world for social hostilities.

And finally, the third theme that I looked at was the state failure to prevent and punish religious freedom violations, known as impunity. A number of countries in the region still have authoritarian regimes in power that keep a tight clamp on individual rights, and don’t respect or adhere to the rule of law. The absence of this kind of accountability breeds lawlessness, which encourages individuals to attack and even kill others who dissent or fail to embrace their own religious views, particularly members of religious minority communities.

Now, countering impunity and promoting respect for the rule of law are among the most significant challenges I see that the United States and international community face as they develop policies to effectively promote and protect freedom of religion or belief around the world. And that’s because we need consistent policies, and to transcend various geopolitical and other issues, which is the ongoing conundrum, as I say. When you look back ten years ago, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in the region had already been increasingly targeting religious minorities in Iraq and Egypt in particular as part of their ideology. But nothing compared to what happened in 2014 in Iraq, when we watched a genocide committed by ISIS against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Now you have Shia militias supported by Iran wreaking havoc throughout Iraq.

Another area, when you look at blasphemy laws, they’ve actually expanded in the past decade. Together with the Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East accounts for 84 percent of the world’s enforcement of blasphemy laws. A few countries that have actually either drafted new ones or gone into force in Oman in 2018, Mauritania, and Morocco both in 2018. So these are newer developments, and unfortunate developments, given that we saw, say, Sudan repeal its—sorry—apostasy law off the books. But again, we see how tenuous that can be with the coup that was just orchestrated a few weeks ago. As I mentioned apostasy laws, these are still in effect in a number of countries where there’s still the capital offense for apostasy. In countries like Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, which actually took their law off the book in 2020 through a decree.

The other theme I want to talk about briefly is the targeting of nonbelievers in the—in the region, atheists. There’s been a rise by governments looking to this group of population in countries as extremists because of their nonbelief. Saudi Arabia, for example, passed a law in 2014 branding atheists as terrorists, making it a capital offense. And Egypt some years ago held a series of government-sponsored workshops warning about the dangers of atheists.

Now, there have been some positive developments. Dan referred to some. There’s also been progress on some of the textbooks and curriculum in some countries, and Saudi, UAE, Egypt working on it. There’s discourse that’s open to unrecognized religious minorities that, say, five, six years ago wouldn’t have been thinkable, like Baha’is in Egypt. You wouldn’t have seen dialogue about them. Or better understanding of the smallest minorities, like Yazidis or Mandaeans in Iraq, that most people had never even heard of until ISIS wreaked havoc just in 2014.

Now, when you look at the situation today, there’s still a dire situation for religious minority communities. And some of these groups continue to decrease in number, as Janine referenced about Christians, to the point of extinction. In part because of the rise of extremism as well, and harsh government restrictions, in addition to other factors. Muslims are also significantly impacted most when it comes to sectarian violence and extremist activities. And that Muslim communities and dissidents often suffer at the hands of governments because of discriminatory laws and practices. Specific laws, as I mentioned, blasphemy and apostasy, remain in place in a number of the countries.

Now, looking to the U.S. policy element, there was a number of speeches in the region, going back to the Bush administration, the Obama administration, talking about for sixty, seventy years the United States had pursued stability at the expense of democracy and human rights, and neither have been achieved. If we look to today, unfortunately there’s still a lot of that that holds true. The U.S. and international community should be speaking out. First of all, one strong recommendation that the commission has made for the release of religious prisoners of conscience. We now keep a victim’s list, a database on our website of those who have been imprisoned or have been victims of governments for—because of their religion or belief.

There’s a new alliance in the past few years that’s formed called the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, with over thirty countries that have been now speaking out more in a unified way to advocate for the release of prisoners and others.

There should also be continually a holding of ministerials that were started during the Trump administration on freedom of religion or belief. This brought a lot of governments from the region, like from Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, Tunisia, attending these, putting them in a situation where they have to discuss their situation, talk about reforms, talk about efforts they’re going to make. These are important platforms annually that should continue. And where the United States or its allies have strong relations with countries in the region, they should be urging governments to life legal bans on minority communities, such as Baha’is or Jehovah’s Witnesses in Egypt, where there are legal bans from decrees dating back to the Nasser era. Or take appropriate steps to prevent and punish acts of antisemitism where they occur.

Now, you know, the recent Abraham Accords that were moved forward, a political agreement by the state of Israel and other countries, is really outside the scope of the work of the commission. But what I will say is there’s been a steady stream of statements of religious tolerance and freedom that have ensued. And this should be fostered and encouraged as a consequence of those. There also should be a further discussion about accountability here. And I’ll end right here. The fact is, there need to be evenly imposed targeted sanctions, travel bans, asset freezes on officials who are identified as violating or being perpetrators of freedom of religion or belief and broader human rights.

This happens—has happened. Previous administrations, the current administration have imposed sanctions on countries like Burma and China, where Uighur Muslims or Rohingya Muslims have been perpetrated—you know, the victims of perpetrators by the government. But the reality is, we need to see this happen in countries where these things go on, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where both are considered countries of particular concern. And, you know, you don’t see the kinds of sanctions for religious freedom violations, although in recent years the previous administration did identify some officials in Iran. But we should—we should see consistency across the board if we want to be seen as a policy that is looking at the human right of religious freedom and encouraging accountability when violations are perpetrated. So I’ll stop right there. Thank you so much.

EL-SHAZLI: All right. Thank you. Thank you, Dwight, very much. I’ve been actually taking note. You find my head going down, but yeah. No, absolutely you raise some very, very important points, particularly accountability and in terms of how—and that need for consistency across the board.

All right. I believe now the floor is open for questions from our community participants.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Mansoor Shams.

Q: Hello. My name is Mansoor Shams. I’m the founder of

I wanted to ask about how do we sort of better the image of the U.S. from a policy standpoint, in particular with the Muslim world, which as you know is quite diverse. But some among the 1.8 billion-plus population—like Pakistan, where I was actually born—often see U.S. foreign policy framed or motivated by a disliking of the Islamic faith. And from the Muslim world standpoint, which I want to acknowledge that it has its share of problems and has not always stayed true to Islam’s true essence, as you described, how do you suggest we fix that gap, that dilemma, particularly among leaders of these Muslim nations? You know, examples like blasphemy laws was mentioned and persecution of minorities. Thank you very much.

EL-SHAZLI: Dwight, would you like to start?

BASHIR: Sure. I can—I can just say a few words. I mean, I think that—as I alluded to there, it’s important to demonstrate that, you know, from a policy perspective we’re looking at the rights of individuals. We’re not—I mean, government shouldn’t be getting into any of the religious ideology or the theology of faiths and making comments there, as far as I’m concerned. But when you see governments that interpret religion to, you know, commit violations, which is the case in some countries in the region, these should be called out. When individual—I mean, the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and these other covenants, this is an important starting point for governments to talk to each other. There’s platforms to do this.

There needs to be consistency, right? As I talked about Saudi and Iran, I mean, the fact is as far as religious freedom is concerned, both are egregious violators of religious freedom. And if any administration is in power and is going to speak truth to power, there needs to be accountability for those violations regardless of how the relationship has been. Obviously with Iran it’s been terrible for over forty years. With Saudi, it’s been up and down, up and down. But generally, this is a very close ally of the United States, and there are other factors.

So the State Department and the White House are always looking at these other factors—counterterrorism, trade, you know, military aid or cooperation, et cetera. So the fact is, if you want to—if you want to see—be seen by the great population out there in the world, you need to be consistent. There can’t be hypocrisy. There needs to be a consistent message and you need to call out officials, you need to call out governments when they violate these human rights.

EL-SHAZLI: Thank you, Dwight. Daniel, was there something you wanted to add?

PHILPOTT: Well, one thing I would say in answer is to reexamine a kind of persistent, and I think still all-too pervasive, secularism in the foreign policy establishment, which tends to look upon religion as being a kind of irrational force of violence and division, and to recognize that religion is complex and multivocal, and also has capacities for peace and human rights and freedom, and so forth. I think one of the problems, especially in the Middle East, is a kind of unqualified blanket support for what I’ve called secular repressive regimes, like the Assads in Syria, or Mubarak in Egypt.

Or, you know, it’s a pattern of Saddam up to—you know, well into the ’90s and so forth, where we’ve kind of assumed that the answer to—well, I would say the shah in Iran, up to the Iranian revolution—where we’ve assumed that the answer is secularism. That’s the wave of the future. Religion is sort of headed for the exit door of history, and if we can just kind of keep it down until it goes away then we’ll have stability and the possibility of democracy. But I think that hasn’t happened. And that repressive secular governments tend to, you know, breed more repression and just kind of feed the problem and prevent the possibility of a kind of more tolerant and stable regime.

EL-SHAZLI: Thank you. Thank you.

Let’s take the next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from John Ryan.

Q: I need to unmute here. Yes. It’s John Ryan, Notre Dame class of 1965. I have a question for Daniel.

I have a colleague and friend who’s a Jordanian Christian, and that she and her husband were always quite positive on religious freedom in Jordan. And their family were able to handle things well. Why wasn’t Jordan on your list of four non-African free Islamic countries?

PHILPOTT: Right. Yeah, that’s a good question. And great to hear I have Notre Dame alum here on the call. Yeah, I mean, there are different gradations. I put Jordan in the secular repressive category because I think it largely shares the kind of regime pattern of Middle Eastern countries, you know, from after World War II up through the Arab uprisings of kind of organizing politics around a kind of secular notion, you know, derived from a kind of European ideology that, you know, wants to sharply manage and control Islam, but in a way that, you know, doesn’t allow, you know, sufficient religious freedom.

Now, there are different gradations of it. And I think that Jordan was a milder version of it than say, you know, the Egypt or the Assad Syria, and so forth, which, you know, were some of the torture capitals of the world. I think in Jordan you also see a kind of voice for—you know, Jordan has been an important player in some of the dialogues, like A Common Word and, you know, has been a voice for tolerance and in some ways religious freedom. But I think, by and large, if you look at on balance, the fit is better in the secular repressive category. But, you know, the categories are not neat and clean. And one of the things I try to show in each of the chapters on these different categories is that there are different degrees and gradations.

EL-SHAZLI: Janine, I was wondering if in your travels if you have spent time in Jordan or have some experience you’d like to add. Unmute.

DI GIOVANNI: Yes, I have. I’ve worked quite a bit in Jordan. Most recently I was working on the Syrian refugee crisis with the U.N. Refugee Agency. And of course, Za’atari is one of the largest settlements and camps for refugees.

But in terms of the groups that I concentrated on, I felt like absolutely the most urgent need had to be focused on Iraq and Gaza, then followed by Syria and Egypt. And again, like, the reasons I point out: Iran, absolutely there is a grave danger of these people vanishing from this land forever. And that’s not me. I mean, if you look at the numbers, Christians in Iraq went down from something like 1.5 million at the last census in the Saddam time to anywhere now between 500,000 and 150,000. We have no idea because we haven’t been able to do any sort of a census, particularly since the 2014 invasion by the Islamic State. So Jordan was not on my list of—although I’ve worked there, of course, extensively. It’s not—it wasn’t the focus of my book.

EL-SHAZLI: Well, thank you. Thank you. All right. Another question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Azza Karam.

Q: Greetings and thank you all very much indeed. Wonderful to see Heba, you in person after a long time, but also delightful to hear from Janine and Daniel and Dwight.

Quick question: To all, but focusing especially on Janine. Janine, you did a wonderful job of bringing up an issue and a connection that is not often made, which is one between climate change and freedom of religion or belief. And I would like very much to hear a little bit more from you, because if we noticed anything from humanitarian crises developing, such as the COVID, we’ve noticed that authoritarian regimes tend to use it as an opportunity to become even more authoritarian. And even supposedly democratic regimes are now being accused of being deeply authoritarian by some of their publics because of the restrictions that they feel called upon to impose, from a scientific perspective.

So given this particular dynamic, in a humanitarian—evolving humanitarian context, climate change is a humanitarian crisis of mythical proportions that is attacking everybody. Where do you see a trend—and I’m not asking you to look into a crystal ball—but based on what you’ve actually already observed what I the trend looking like? Because we can sit here and quantify and account for which regimes are more reliable on freedom of religion or belief, which are worse, what is history, what is—but, look, we’re living in a very real dilemma right now. What can we reasonably anticipate—(inaudible)? Thank you.

DI GIOVANNI: So, Azza, what a great question. And actually, it’s really interesting you bring this up because this week alone I just wrote my column for the National about climate change in the Middle East. And one of—some of the research I’m doing now at Yale, where I’m a senior fellow, is basically the link between climate change and human rights. So as someone that’s reported war, unfortunately, for thirty-five years of my life—(laughs)—I tend to look for early trigger warnings about when conflict can arise. And I think one of the most worrying things we’re going to see in the Middle East, which is the region that probably is—the global warming is increasing twice as fast as other places, but yet it’s ill-prepared to cope with what could happen in terms of water scarcity, food scarcity, you mention more global health issues.

So I’m really looking very closely at where climate change is linking with human rights. And that means, like, in terms of livelihood, again, going back to the Christian farmers in the Nineveh Plain whose farms have been, you know, basically destroyed. But also looking at drought, looking at water. I mean, if we go back to the Syrian war, of course, 2011 came about at the end of the Arab Spring, because people wanted their freedom. That was the call, we want our freedom. But it was also the drought. So I think in the future, and this almost sounds post-apocalyptic, but wars will be fought over water scarcity and food scarcity, which will then trigger mass migration.

And we will see it more and more places like Lake Chad, again, the great rivers, the Tigris, the Euphrates, the Indus, even the Colorado River in the United States. These places are all very vulnerable. And what that means is the people whose livelihood is there. So this is a fundamental human right. And it really is something I don’t think they looked at enough at COP26, particularly given the Middle East focus. But thank you for that great question.

EL-SHAZLI: Indeed. Indeed. Thank you. Thank you very much.

Next question, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Stephen Gutow.

Q: First of all, I just want to say that as a rabbi I’m totally fascinated by all four of you and wish I could ask all four of you a host of questions, because each one of you has touched my heart.

But, Janine, I have a question for you on two counts, and you can do it quickly or however you want to. I’m more interested in how does these eight hundred Christians in Gaza—how do they function? I mean, I never hear much about them. I was surprised actually and excited to hear that there’s this, you know, kind of counter-tradition to Islam going on and alive. And the other question is a little more—you know, it’s a little more sad to me, but it might not be. And that’s what I’m hoping you’ll say. What—you know, after working hard to do what we could to help the Yazidis, how are they? Like, what’s going on with the Yazidis? And you brought up both of them, which is why I’m directing these just to you. So that’s the question.

DI GIOVANNI: Thank you for two really great questions. So, first, the Christians, yes, I agree with you. I’ve been working in Gaza since 1989, and I was not aware of this tiny community. Of course, I knew about the Christians in the West Bank, but within Gaza. They’re mainly Greek Orthodox, but there’s also Roman Catholics. There’s Baptists. There’s Lutherans. How do they—how do they survive? They have their churches where—which is kind of their community centers. So they are—you know, they’re very close-knit. They’ve been there, again, you know, for thousands of years, literally.

So they’re very embedded in the community. But it’s increasingly more difficult for them because of Hamas. And, again, the Christians in Gaza were the most closed community of all four that I worked with. And, you know, I go back repeatedly, I do many, many interviews. But it was very difficult. And I repeatedly said, you now, is Hamas an issue? And I almost felt like there was a kind of fear. And I tried to go very—I try to be very sensitive in these situations because, of course, I leave and go back to safety, and I leave them behind.

And the second thing, Rabbi, is of course these Christians suffer the same way everyone else does in Gaza because of the Israeli restriction of movement. So if they’re sick, they can get to hospitals outside of Gaza. If they want to leave the country for training, if they want to work, they can’t. They’re stuck inside the largest, what I say, open-air prison in the world. And, you know, I’m happy to discuss this with you separately at another time. I’d love to talk to you about it.

Second, the Yazidis. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with the Yazidi people, since way back—since the Saddam days, when they were extremely persecuted. So one amazing thing that I’ve noticed with the Yazidi people, which has never—I’ve never noticed before in any other culture I’ve ever worked with post-conflict, the women who were taken to Raqqa, sold in the markets and sexually abused, every other culture where I’ve ever studied this in depth—and that was mainly Bosnia, of course, where there were rape camps, Kosovo, where entire villages were raped, Africa.

The Yazidi people in a sense decided that they were not going to shame these women and shun them and push them out, which happened in—I’m afraid, in Syria. Many women that I know that this happened to. They had to keep it secret because they would have been shunned forever, they couldn’t get married. One woman I know, her fiancée left her when she told him she had been raped. The Yazidi people, from their highest spiritual leader, were told: We will welcome these women back. We will support them. We will help them heal. I thought this was remarkable.

So when I started working post-ISIS in northern Iraq, in Duhok and the region where there were many—there were some incredible NGOs that were—that were with—working with Yazidi women by Yazidi—by Yazidi people. And the other final thing I’ll say, because I don’t want to take up too much time, there was also some extraordinary rescue missions that went on during the ISIS time. So while these women were in Raqqa. I was with some men—Yazidi men who were working to try to rescue them. And the way they did it was just extraordinary. It was like something out of a Hollywood film.

They would get the door-to-door salesmen that would go to Raqqa where these women were enslaved. And, you know, they were working as slaves for these ISIS guys. And they would—they would try to get messages passed to them so that they could escape. So they had a kind of underground railroad going. And in this sense, because the Yazidis are such a tight-knit community and they have been so persecuted through history, so persecuted, they seem to come together in a way that, for me, was really extraordinary. So thank you so much for asking those questions. And you can find me on the CFR register. I’m happy to continue the conversation privately.

EL-SHAZLI: Thank you. Thank you very much, indeed.

I’m afraid we have about four minutes left. Can we handle another question?

OPERATOR: We’ll take our last question from Felice Gaer.

EL-SHAZLI: OK. Thank you.

Q: Thank you very much. And thank you to the panelists.

I’ll turn this around to the question of foreign policy, if I may. We’ve had a lot of attention to religious freedom in the United States government. Certainly the UCIRF and the—and the IRF office in the State Department, but also by the U.K., Canada, Holland, even a U.N. special rapporteur on these issues. And this is especially to Dwight, but I’d be interested in the other panelists responding. What impact would you say these policy programs have had on religious freedom in the region? Where have they made the greatest difference? Has it been textbooks in Saudi Arabia, blasphemy laws, training of clerics, released prisoners, something else?

BASHIR: Felice, thanks for the question. Good to see you here virtually.

You know, I think the greater emphasis, as you mentioned, that the State Department has put on religious freedom is—the special rapporteur, this international alliance of governments, over thirty. There’s the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. I think it’s been a combination of efforts, frankly. But if you had to point to some areas, I would say that, you know, some progress was made in Egypt in some areas, as far as treatment of the Coptic population. The challenge with Egypt is simply that, you know, they’re still—you know, you’re getting a much more tight environment with the security apparatus and so on, even though they’ve just lifted their state of emergency.

I think the bigger issue here is, you know, a country like Saudi, you mentioned the textbooks, that’s significant but there’s—you know, I think ultimately the pressure needs to always be kept up. And you see, there’s been a lot of strong statements, frankly, from the previous administration on Iran, and that has not resulted in positive change. I mean, that’s another fact. So it goes both ways. I mean, a lot of countries in the region, as you well know, don’t like to be publicly shamed. Image and perception is so, you know, sacred, in a way. So the public, you know, shaming doesn’t always go a long way.

But what I’ve seen over two decades or more, is that the private work doesn’t yield much fruits either, frankly. There’s got to be more carrots there, in my view. But at the same time, if there isn’t that accountability piece, which we’ve seen only piecemeal, and really with governments that we don’t have close relationships with or adversarial, like in Iran, where we unleashed the targeted sanctions. Would love to see some accountability efforts on some of our allies, because this—just because there are some targeted sanctions on individuals when they very clearly violated religious freedom, the fact is, you know, we haven’t seen consistency.

So unfortunately, there’s not a lot to point to in terms of long-term progress, but there have been efforts, as I mentioned, on religious tolerance in Bahrain, where you see a lot of efforts being made. But there’s still some issues that linger. And I think we need to be pushing on these issues consistently with all these platforms.

EL-SHAZLI: Definitely. Definitely. Unfortunately, the time has come for us to end. And time has not been our friend, because I think we could have continued for much more, because such an important topic and such excellent experts that we have with us this afternoon. Thank you very much. Thank you to everyone.


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