Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, June 30, 2006

The Plight of Religious Minorities in the Middle East: Can Religious Pluralism Survive?

Congress of the United States
House of Representatives

Committee on International Relations

OPEN hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights and International Operations, held in Room 2172 of the Rayburn House Office Building: June 30, 2006

Today’s hearing focused on the current status of varying religious groups within the Middle East. In his opening statement, Chairman Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) noted that “we all too often overlook the incredible diversity of religion, liturgy, culture, art, history and literature which the Middle East represents.” Today's testimonies not only discussed the vast diversity of the Middle East, but they also expressed that because we overlook the diversity in the region, we are also turning a blind eye towards the widespread discrimination throughout the greater Middle East and its subsequent Islamisization.

Nina Shea, Vice Chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) made numerous suggestions aimed at preserving religious pluralism in Egypt and Iraq. Shea discussed the plight of the Coptic Christians and the threat of violence that the community has faced in the past. Not only have the Copts been the targets of violence, their community receives little or no justice once such crimes are committed. The Al-Kosheh Massacre is one such example in which twenty Copts were killed in 1999; the government has not punished the perpetrators and refuses to consider its religious significance. Shea suggests that the United States set up a clear timetable for Egypt to implement more religious tolerance and if demands are not met by this deadline, consequences will occur.

Ms. Shea went on to discuss the implications of the US reconstruction policies in Iraq. In a country where non-Muslim minorities face severe discrimination, particularly in the Kurdistan region, the US can no longer build infrastructure in the country and then let the Iraqi people decide who benefits from such modernization. By ignoring this problem, the US had inadvertently allowed the Muslim majority to deprive non-Muslims of the improvements that have been made over the past couple of years.

One of the most powerful testimonies of today’s hearing came from Rosie Malek-Yonan, an Assyrian American and author of The Crimson Field. She, like so many other Assyrians living in the Diaspora, works relentlessly to shed light on the plight of the Assyrian Christians in Iraq. No matter how hard she works, Yonan lamented, no one, including the US, is doing anything to improve the Assyrian situation. For example, the population of Assyrians in Iraq has decreased to only 800,000 from 1.4million since the beginning of the Iraqi war. Yonan made it clear that her people are either dying or being driven away from their homeland.

The importance of today’s hearing was best captivated in Yonan’s story. Because of her words, the Subcommittee and Chairman Smith gave their word that they are listening and they are going to help the plight of her people. Such a sentiment was addressed to all those who testified on behalf of marginalized religious communities. And hopefully this commitment will follow through.


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