Kidnapped bishops spur call for religious freedom promotion

Prof Thomas Farr CNA US Catholic News 6 13 12 Prof. Thomas Farr. | Michelle Bauman/CNA.

The recent kidnapping of two Orthodox bishops in Syria has a former diplomat urging the U.S. government to make religious liberty a greater priority in its foreign policy.

"U.S. foreign policy with respect to religious freedom consists almost entirely, when it consists of anything, of rhetorical condemnations of acts such as this," said Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

However, it is not always clear that these condemnations "have any effect whatsoever," Farr told CNA April 24.

Archbishop John Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Archbishop Paul Yagizi of the Greek Orthodox Church were kidnapped April 22 near Aleppo, Syria by armed men who appear to have killed their driver.

It remains unclear who carried out the kidnapping. The Syrian government and rebel groups have both traded accusations over who is to blame.

On April 23, both Al Jazeera and l'Oeuvre d'Orient, a French agency serving Christians in the Orient, reported that the bishops had been returned. But a joint statement of the Greek and Syriac Orthodox patriarchs contradicted this.

Al Jazeera has not reported on the matter since, but l'Oeuvre d'Orient said April 24 that "the situation is extremely complex and information is difficult to obtain. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Damascus confirmed by telephone this morning that there was no release."

"L'Oeuvre d'Orient calls again on the Syrian opposition forces, the Syrian government and international authorities to make every effort to obtain the release of these two bishops, and two priests, who are foreign to the conflict which tears Syria."

On April 24, Archbishop Antonio Chedraui of the Orthodox Church of Antioch in Mexico, Central America, Venezuela and the Caribbean, confirmed to CNA that the two Syrian bishops "remain kidnapped. The reports published yesterday are not correct."

At its press briefing yesterday, April 23, the State Department believed the bishops to have been released and indicated relief. The topic of the kidnapped bishops was not raised in the April 24 briefing.

"In the past we've seen the American government hesitate to speak too assertively about the persecution of Christians, lest they be seen as a vanguard of a kind of Christian imperialism," said Farr, who directed the State Department's Office of International Religious Freedom from 1999-2003.

"Hopefully that will not be the case here and we'll see a vigorous condemnation, whether they've been released or not."

He said the kind of "rhetorical condemnation" of religious persecution typically issued by the U.S. government is "pretty easy to issue."

The Syrian civil war entered its second year a month ago, and the country's Christian minority has been caught in its midst.

Many Syrian Christians live in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, all of which are cities strongly contested by the government and the rebels. Many have fled to nearby Lebanon.

Only about a week before his kidnapping, Archbishop Ibrahim had told BBC Arabic that Syrian Christians are in the same situation as their Muslim neighbors.

"There is no persecution of Christians and there is no single plan to kill Christians. Everyone respects Christians. Bullets are random and not targeting the Christians because they are Christians," he said.

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United Nations estimates indicate that about 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict. More than 1 million refugees have flooded into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, while another estimated 2.5 million are internally displaced inside Syria.

The Greek and Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch stated together April 23 that "the Christians living here are an essential part of their lands. They suffer the pain every person suffers, and work as messengers of peace to lift the injustice off every oppressed person."

"We call the kidnappers to respect the life of the two kidnapped brothers as well as everyone to put an end to all the acts that create confessional and sectarian schisms among the sons of the one country."

"We can but call the whole world to try putting an end to the Syrian crisis so that Syria becomes again a garden of love, security and coexistence. Settling accounts should not happen at the expense of the human beings who live here," they pleaded.

Farr stated that "what the State department should be doing – not yet in Syria, because it's still a war zone – but in all the countries where such a thing happens with some regularity … we should be working not simply to react after they happen, but to engage with these governments and societies to develop structures of religious freedom."

In addition to citing Muslim-majority countries, Farr mentioned China, India and other non-Muslim nations which need to be actively encouraged in religious freedom by the U.S. These countries should be urged to develop religious liberty as an important component for a peaceful, flourishing society, he said.

"I think U.S. foreign policy, when it comes to issues like religious primarily reactive, and that's not enough. We need to be working to convince societies that they have to prevent this from happening in the first place, because it harms their interests."

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As an example, he pointed to the April 7 attack of an Islamic mob on the Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Cairo, slaughtering Christians there.

"We shouldn't just be reacting to that," Farr emphasized. "We should be getting in front of the problem and convincing the Egyptians that it's in their interest to develop religious freedom."

Religious persecution, he concluded, "is going on all the time, so to condemn it is something we ought to do, but we should be getting in front of the problem."

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