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Middle East Christians and the 2016 U.S. Elections

Middle East Christians and the 2016 U.S. Elections

Across the Middle East, refugees, IDPs, and indigenous religious minorities remain at considerable risk.  The U.S. presidential election has not addressed any of these concerns, from humanitarian or geostrategic perspectives. But the new U.S. president will have to.

Military operations in northern Iraq against ISIS’s control of Mosul bring to fore the question of Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq. The importance of these questions remained invisible in the U.S. presidential and vice-presidential debates.

The 2016 U.S. elections process has been dominated by personalities, not by issues. Donald Trump emerged as the Republican nominee by exaggeration and personal attack on his rivals—”low-energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio, and so on. Trump continued this line of attack on the Democratic nominee, “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, directing attention to her at-home email server, hiding of alleged health issues, and non-progressive governments who donated to the Clinton Foundation.

Former Secretary of State Clinton has directed her attacks on his failure to release his tax returns, his apparent exemption from paying federal taxes, and his disrespect for immigrants, minorities, and women—recently illustrated by release of a crude audio recording and allegations of unwanted sexual touching by more than 10 women.

Mr. Trump has made elements of foreign policy central to his campaign. Build a wall to keep out Mexican immigrants, and deport illegal immigrants. Tighten immigration restrictions from countries with large Muslim populations, to reduce the risk of terrorism. Renegotiate trade deals—including NAFTA, with two of the U.S.’s largest trade partners. Expect more burden-sharing from U.S. allies. Respect Putin. Reject the Iran deal that intends to trade sanctions relief for promises to defer a nuclear weapons program. Defeat ISIS.  Secretary Clinton, naturally, opposes most of these goals, or has an opposite strategy to achieve them.

In the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate, though, which included discussions of ISIS, Islam, oil, terrorism, and immigration, candidates never got to the subject of protecting religious minorities in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter). When they were asked specifically in the second debate about the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, neither discussed it all.

These issues are being debated outside the presidential race, though.  Earlier this year, the Vatican sponsored and three-day meeting on religious persecution at the United Nations in New York. This spring, the White House and both houses of Congress proclaimed ISIS activities as genocide against religious minority groups.  Secretary of State John Kerry stated that “Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by its actions.” In May, the House passed amendments to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act in support of local defense by Christians and others against ISIS. In September, more than 50 members of Congress spoke at the third annual In Defense of Christians (IDC) conference.

The IDC conference focused on issues like support for Lebanon and the 1.5 million refugees it hosts, Congressional resolutions in support of Iraqi and Syrian religious minorities, and the fate of Coptic Christians in Egypt. But it also raised a question that will be difficult for the next president: what Iraq should look like.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R.-Neb.) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 152, supporting an autonomous Nineveh Plain Province for Christians and other minorities. This is the region from which the Iraqi Army and the Kurdistan Region’s peshmerga, with U.S. and allied support, are currently attempting to drive out ISIS. American diaspora groups like the American Mesopotamian Organization have been promoting this for some time, building not only political support in Congress but also creating the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU), to fight ISIS in northern Iraq.

The difficulty for the next president will be how to approach the Iraqi Government, Kurdistan Region, and American diaspora after the liberation of Mosul and defeat of ISIS, at least in Iraq. The Kurdistan Region (KR) hosts about 1.8 million refugees from Syria and IDPs from the rest of Iraq, including many Christians, Yezidis, Turcoman, Kakai, and other religious minorities. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has protected many Christian interests in northern Iraq, but also has been criticized by Assyrian Christian/Nineveh Plain diaspora. The next president will have to answer:

Should the U.S. support independence initiatives from the KRG? The KRG has governed territory outside of its three constitutional provinces, including in the Nineveh Plain, since even before ISIS’s attack in 2014—what territories, if any, might the U.S. acknowledge as part of a Kurdish independence declaration? If necessary, should the U.S. be prepared to militarily support the peshmerga from the Iraqi Army? Turkey and Iran each have Kurdish populations of their own; how Ankara and Tehran react will matter intensely.  Syria’s Kurds get rolled into this chess game as well.

In Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, refugees, IDPs, and indigenous religious minorities remain at considerable risk.  The U.S. presidential election has not addressed any of these concerns, from humanitarian, human rights, or geostrategic perspectives. But the new U.S. president will have to.

See also the author’s earlier post on indigenous Christian militias in he Nineveh Province, Jan 2015.



Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks