France taking lead on protecting Iraqi and Syrian Christians

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French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius addresses a UN Security Council meeting, which debated the issue of minorities in Syria and Iraq, on 27 March 2015.
REUTERS/Mike Segar
By Sarah Elzas
France has been re-establishing its historical role of protecting Christian minorities in the Middle East. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has been rallying support for persecuted Christians in Syria and Iraq, calling for action from the UN Security Council last week. Pope Francis evoked the plight of Eastern Christians in his annual Easter message on Sunday.

The Pope called on the international community to not stand by “before the immense humanitarian tragedy” unfolding in Syria and Iraq.

Islamic State militants have targeted religious minorities, killing hundreds of Iraqi and Syrian Yazidis and Christians. Last month the group kidnapped some 220 Assyrian Christians in Syria, prompting 5,000 people to leave their homes, fearful of more violence. The group has attacked Christians in neighbouring Iraq, notably during an offensive in June of last year.

Fabius warned the Security Council that without action, “minorities will disappear entirely” from Syria and Iraq. Though since last summer, he has been particularly focused on Christians.

At the end of July he and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that France would help facilitate visas for Iraqi and Syrian Christians seeking refuge in France.

“There is a certain historic relationship with Eastern Christians,” explains Jean Maher, the head of Chredo, an organisation that lobbies France to help Eastern Christians.

He points to France’s relationship with Christians in Lebanon: In the early 20th century, after the First World War, France gained control of parts of the Ottoman empire, including Lebanon and Syria, and was seen by Maronite Christians in Lebanon as a liberating force.

Maher says that France has now taken up its role as historical “protector” in the face of “danger coming to the Syrians and now the Iraqis”.

That danger is the rise of the Islamic State militant group, though Maher, who is Egyptian and has been in France for 40 years, says the persecution of Christians pre-dates the armed group.

Christians have been under threat from Islamists in Syria, but Western nations who were planning a course of action against the Assad regime were not addressing the problem.

“Nobody was talking about the Christians,” says Maher, about discussions over what to do in Syria.

Coming to the aid of Christians “makes things more complicated”, he adds.

Complications arise over alliances: Backing the opposition against Assad puts France on the side of Islamists, many of whom are trying to rid Syria of Christians.

The rise of the Islamic State armed group in Iraq allowed France to get involved more directly.

French political support

Support for Eastern Christians picked up steam last summer, when France promised visas to refugees and Fabius promised to take the issue to the United Nations.

Whereas previously the issue was taken up by clergy, there is now growing political support.

“The atrocities of the Islamic State [armed group] have certainly woken people up,” says MP Gérard Bapt, who has long been the head of the Franco-Syrian friendship committee in the National Assembly. “But for a long time I found that in France, there was not enough interest in Eastern Christians and other religious minorities.”

France, as a historically Catholic country, certainly has an affinity towards helping Christian minorities, but Bapt says the focus is not just on Christians.

“There is a link, in terms of Christianity. But politically, it’s about religious minorities: Shiites, when they are the minority, Alawites, Druze, Yazidi,” he told RFI, adding that religious pluralism “allows the introduction of ideas of human rights” in countries “that generally are authoritarian”.

The issue has drawn the support of politicians from across the political spectrum, though the most vocal have come from the right.

Hervé Mariton, an MP with France’s main right-wing opposition party, the UMP, says that the French right has a better relationship with French Christians than the left.

“More attention has been paid towards Christians from the right of the political spectrum, for a very long time,” he told RFI, adding that the right’s position on issues like same-sex marriage also helped solidify the relationship.

When it comes to supporting minority Christians in Syria and Iraq, Mariton says it is a way of working on issues that are closer to home, notably the integration of France’s Muslim minority.

“The defense [of Christian minorities in the Middle East] is absolutely necessary when we see the massacres that are happening,” he says. “But the fact that we are defending Christians in the Middle East should be no excuse for not posing the debate between Christians and Muslims: the majority and minority here in France.”

France has not properly addressed the problems facing its Muslim minority, he says, “and what is happening in the Middle East is in a way a sort of debate by proxy”, a way of “not immediately answering the questions here in France”.