Asbarez — On Thursday, at a press conference that kicked off its three-day convention, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), In Defense of Christians (IDC) and the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE), and U.S. Representative Dave Trott (R-IL), gathered to announce an ambitious policy agenda. The conference addressed human rights and foreign policy concerns in the Middle East, with an emphasis on the religious persecution of Christians and other ethno-religious minorities in the region.
Recalling the success IDC and its partners in getting the U.S. government to declare that the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) is perpetrating genocide against Christians and other ethno-religious minorities in territories under its control, the conference’s panelists asked what’s next, laying out a number of bold initiatives, frameworks and resolutions to address the concerns of some of the region’s most vulnerable communities.
The conference was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Katrina Lantos-Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, commended IDC for the name of its convention: “Beyond Genocide: Preserving and Protecting the Future of Christianity in the Middle East”.
“Naming the evil alone is not enough,” said Lantos-Swett, who keynoted the conference. “With the focus of this convention, a call to action is implied.”
Lantos decried the destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East, stating, “I am baffled and broken, as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, to see the West so willfully blind or perhaps unwilling to act in the face of such destruction.” A personal call to action is needed, she continued. “The question should be: Am I my brother’s keeper? We dare not answer in any way other than the affirmative.”
Within that context, the press conference’s participants and panelists made some bold requests during the press conference, asking the U.S. government to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide, to support the establishment of a province for persecuted minorities in Iraq’s Nineveh Plain and to encourage the reform of Egypt’s legal regulations regarding the rebuilding of destroyed churches.
Rep. Trott announced his historic resolution, “The Coptic Churches Accountability Act” at the conference, stating, “Coptic Christians in Egypt are second class citizens, even though they are indigenous to the region.”
Trott recounted that after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2014, Coptic Christians experienced the worst violence the community had seen seen since the 14th century. Dozens of churches were destroyed. And although President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi should be commended for his pledge to restore the rights of the Copts, said Trott, the U.S. government should encourage this progress and hold the leadership of Egypt to account.
Andrew Doran, Senior Policy Advisor for IDC applauded Trott. “We are very proud to have Rep. Trott today and we will support his resolution,” he said. “This is a concrete example of what Washington can do in the face of such persecution and destruction.”
Not only are the initiatives we announce today in the interest of the Middle East’s persecuted populations, they’re also in the interest of the American people, continued Doran. “Violence and terrorism is not contained to the Middle East. And it’s not coming to America and the West; it’s already here — it’s ravaged our nightclubs, our public spaces, our churches.”
Toufic Baaklani, president of IDC, also commended Trott’s resolution. “We are the strongest country in the world. When Congress or our lawmakers act, the whole world listens,” he said. “With the question of justice in mind, I believe our next act should be to sanction the individuals and countries that have supported and funded ISIS.”
The discussion moved to the creation, within the framework of Iraq’s constitutional governance, of the Nineveh Plain Province in northeastern Iraq, which would be preserved as an autonomous zone for persecuted Christians, Yezidis and others who have faced persecution and genocide at the hands of ISIS.
“The Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government have recognized the need for the Nineveh Plain Province. It’s time for United States to do the same,” said panelist Robert Nicholson, Executive Director of the Philos Project, noting that the plain is the ancient homeland of northeastern Iraq’s Christians and Yezidis, who were displaced when ISIS invaded the area.
“The problems of the Middle East never stay there,” Nicholson continued. “When ISIS is rolled back, we will need a vision, a long-term plan and Christians should be part of this plan. New provinces, based on a decentralized, federated Iraq, will allow Christian and minority communities to feel empowered in the post-ISIS future.”
The region’s indigenous peoples include Christian Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs, Kurds, Yezidis as well as Shabaks. There are also significant numbers of Turkmen, Armenians, Kawliya and Mandeans.
The need for a safe zone for these persecuted minorities, rent from their Ninevah homeland during the ISIS onslaught in 2014, is more pressing than ever. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that the Mosul invasion could result in a severe humanitarian crisis in a region already besieged by horrific human tragedy. UNCHR predicts that as many as 1.2 million refugees will flee the city and surroundings as the offense commences.
And the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians, all victims of genocide, should be given first priority in support for the creation of the Nineveh Plain Province, he said. “The United States and the international community should help this community in securing safe passage, aid and administrative autonomy, in fielding their police and local security forces, and in saving their culture and languages”.
“The last act of genocide is cultural and historical erasure,” said panelist and Prof Alexis Mourkazel, Former Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of the Holy Spirit, noting the death and persecution of Christians and Yezidis in northern Iraq and Syria.
He shared his vision for a revitalized Nineveh Plain through the creation and support of intellectual, cultural and academic centers of learning that will be a focal point for the region and a link between East and West. “Let us create an interactive climate in the Nineveh Plain, where its scholars, artists and educated people can return and be a link to the world,” said Mourkazel. “If you leave the region dry, it will not survive; rather let it survive and grow through culture.”
The panelists also discussed how failing to recognize past genocides is not only a moral failure but also emboldens current and future perpetrators of genocide.
Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), decried a century of American inaction regarding the Armenian genocide, stating that IDC’s success in getting the U.S. government to recognize the genocide being perpetrated by ISIS set a powerful example.
“Sadly, the United States has been complicit in Turkey’s refusal to recognize the Armenian genocide, which is not in alignment with American values,” said Hamparian. “ANCA joins with all of you, bound together in support of IDC’s policy agenda, which asks for a truthful and just recognition of the Turkish genocide against Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and other minorities. Justice for one equals justice for all; progress for one equals progress for all.”
Doran set the tone for the rest of the conference, stating that the progress and initiatives IDC and its partners are advocating for are not sectarian in nature. “IDC does not advocate for the rights of Christians over and above Muslims or any other group,” said Doran. “More sectarianism will only lead to more violence. To the Muslims in the West and East, we say, we are not adversaries, but brothers and sisters, struggling against violence and extremism. They are welcome here as they have welcomed so many of us in their homes in the region. We are acutely aware of the suffering of millions of Muslims in the face of ISIS and the sectarian violence in the Middle East. The policies that IDC and its partners advocate for will support all peoples in the Middle East, of all faiths.”
The press conference participants and panelists included Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, President of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, (R-IL), Rob Nicholson, Executive Director, the Philos Project, Prof. Alexis Mourkarzel, Former Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of the Holy Spirit, Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of America, Andrew Doran, IDC Senior Advisor, Kirsten Evans, IDC Executive Director and Ninar Keyrouz, IDC Director of Media and Communications.