An interview with Robert P. George on Christians in Syria and Iraq

Robert P. George, Chairman of the
US Commission on International
Religious Freedom
by John Burger, Catholic World Report

Robert P. George is the new chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a panel on which he has served as a commissioner since 2012. Though he has a personal interest in religious freedom—his father’s family is Syrian Orthodox, and some of his relatives have fled Syria due to religious persecution—his outlook is global, overseeing research and reports on limitations on religion worldwide, involving Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others.

The longtime McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, George is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School this year. He is the author ofConscience and Its Enemies (ISI, 2013) among other works. He spoke with CWR August 26, as the Obama administration weighed options on a military response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government against rebels and civilians.

The escalation in Syria came a week after tense fighting in Egypt between the country’s military and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. During the conflict, scores of Coptic Christian churches, institutions and businesses were attacked and destroyed by fire. One church that was razed, the Church of the Virgin Mary in Delga, had survived many upheavals since it was built in the 4th or 5th century. Now it lies in rubble.

CWR: What do we know about what’s going on with the Coptic Christians in Egypt?

George: The situation in Egypt and the equally horrific situation in Syria illustrate the general plight of Christians in the Middle East. These are very ancient Christian communities, going back nearly to the foundations of Christianity, in many cases. Yet, over a number of years now we’ve seen the erosion of these communities, to the point where one begins to become concerned that before too long there will be no Christian communities left in the Middle East. The Christian community in Iraq was devastated as a result of the Iraq war. Many, many Iraqi Christians fled. In many cases, they fled to Syria, of all places, and now what do we see? They’re now having to flee from Syria.

The native Syrian Christian population, as well as Christian refugees from Iraq and elsewhere, is now at grave risk. Of course, it’s not just Christians who are suffering in Syria or in Egypt, but just for the moment I’m talking about Christians. The native Christian Syrian population, which is an ancient Church—it’s actually the Church of my father and his ancestors—is now in peril. My own Syrian relatives have left and are in the United States and will probably never be able to return to their homes.

The same thing is now happening in Egypt, of course, with the Coptic Christians, who have always been at risk and have been subjected to persecutions frequently over the centuries. They are now being brutally attacked, made scapegoats. The attacks come not from simply one sector of the general Egyptian society but from several different sectors. Their churches have been burned, their businesses have been attacked, a large number have been murdered. Again, a very ancient Middle Eastern Christian community is under assault. We will begin to see and are already seeing Coptic refugees fleeing Egypt.

So, it’s a tragedy. It should be of concern to Christians around the world. This is the very cradle of Christianity, the Middle East. These are ancient Christian communities, and it should be of concern to the entire world. Too often, especially in the Western media, including here in the United States, there is an ideological tendency to treat Christians as if they can only be persecutors, and never the persecuted. But if we look at what is happening now to these ancient Christian communities across the Middle East, as well as what’s happening to Christians in Africa and some parts in Asia, you see that very, very often today Christians are the persecuted, and the persecutions are quite brutal.

CWR: You mentioned your family. Are you yourself Orthodox?

George: No, I’m Catholic. My mother is Italian Catholic, but my father’s family is Syrian Orthodox—Antiochian Orthodox. They are people of deep Christian faith.

CWR: What about the view that these Christian communities were better off under people like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and possibly Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and now Bashar al-Assad in Syria? (Continue reading at Catholic World Report.)