It was a high-profile event at the spring session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. On the podium sat none other than the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his Lebanese colleague Gebran Bassil and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian. Among other speakers were religious dignitaries of the Christian Orthodox Church and other committed individuals. The discussion was chaired by John Laughland. In his introductory statement he explained that the aim of the event was to set the Christians’ persecution on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council.
The first speaker, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, talked about the situation of Christians in the Middle East and on the sidelines about Christians in Ukraine. In his speech, Sergei Lavrov he referred to the devastating situation in the Middle East. “Since the start of the Arab Spring, Russia has warned not to leave the changes in the region up to the control of religious extremists.” “This region”, the Russian Foreign Minister stated, “has been hit by a wave of extremism, the inter-confessional contradictions, the contradictions between the civilisations are being reinforced. Normal religious activities and even the existence of several religious communities are threatened.” Most dramatic is the situation in Syria, because “this country was the unique model of a peaceful, mutually respectful existence of various religious communities. Due to the failure to prevent the activities of extremist forces – one tried to make use of them in the fight against the regime of Bashar Assad – this constellation was destroyed.”
With the emergence of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq dozens of churches were destroyed, and a veritable exodus started. In towns like Mosul, where Christians had been living for centuries, they were killed or enslaved. The crimes currently committed by the IS in Syria and Iraq, have all the signs of genocide under the 1948 Convention. There is an urgent need to end the persecution of Christians but also of supporters of all other religions.
In addition, the Christian exodus from the Middle East is likely to have the most negative influence on the structure of Arab societies and the preservation of historical and spiritual legacy that is important for all humanity. “Our common task is to pool efforts for the struggle against extremism and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. Important steps towards this end were made with the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions, including resolutions 2170 and 2199. However, our joint ability to reliably block any channels of support for terrorists, such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nurah and the like, by using the available mechanisms of the Security Council, will play the decisive role in this respect.” We must do all we can to “prevent the persecution of Christians” and of supporters of all other religions. A no less urgent task is “to prevent the jihadists from captivating the minds and souls of younger people. We are supporting the initiatives of the region’s Christian and Muslim leaders that are aimed at opposing by concerted efforts, the attempts of extremists of all kinds to desecrate and distort the high moral principles of the great world religions. The tragic events in the Middle East suggest one more conclusion. It is necessary to give up once and for all the temptation to make the destinies of whole nations hostage to geopolitical ambitions, which are being achieved through crude interference in the affairs of sovereign states.”
Sergei Lavrov greatly regretted that Christians were being persecuted not only in the Middle East, but that also because of the conflict in Ukraine Orthodox churches and monasteries had been destroyed and Orthodox priests had had to flee. Nationalist extremists have begun to sow religious hatred. Lavrov condemned the aggressive destruction of churches and Christian symbols. Three Orthodox clergymen were killed. Many clergymen fled to Russia in the face of extremist threats. According to Lavrov, the result is that Christians are no longer willing to confess their faith, resulting in a loss of cultural values. Instead, an aggressive secularism spreads that leads to Christian values and notions of morality being washed away. Thus, cultural and religious identity are being eroded. Incidences of vandalism and desecration of churches, temples, holy places, cemeteries and Christian symbols are growing fast. It is increasingly difficult for believers to uphold their convictions. One has to be aware of this development. “Lessons of history show that a civilisation that has abandoned its moral ideals loses its spiritual strength.”
All of us must remember this, especially this year, when we are marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, in which tens of millions of people of all ethnicities and religions were killed. Taking responsibility for one’s own values is extremely important. “We welcome the activities of the OSCE, which has already held conferences on countering Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and is preparing another conference on Christianophobia. We are urging the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe to pay more attention to these issues, including the framework of the Dialogue of Civilisations forum. We are convinced that the Human Rights Council should also contribute to resolving these problems.”
The Lebanese Foreign Minister began his presentation with a phrase by Pope John Paul II, who had once said: “Lebanon is not just a state, it is a message”. He went on to explain that Lebanon had incarnated an ideal of tolerance and peaceful coexistence and he was proud to be at the conference and convey these values to the world. However, Lebanon was standing at a crossroads, he said. Either it was going to develop into a place that gives birth to extremists or it would become a place for negotiations and variety that could be an example for others. Lebanon was a country in the Middle East, he said, where different religions and cultures were working well together across all social classes. For years, attempts were going on to use violent extremism to destabilise the region for years to come. “The IS and its followers are a version of this development that is conducting a fight against minorities, especially against Christians.” Today in 2015 we commemorate the genocide of the Armenians hundred years ago, who had been expelled only because of their faith. As part of the Ottoman Empire Lebanon had then been affected, as well. He pointed to the historical parallel which showed “that the origin and existence of the IS is not a new phenomenon in the region.” In its history Lebanon had always been a liberal harbour for all oppressed people. “That is the spirit of our state.” Since the end of Ottoman rule, Christians had played “a decisive role between the different Islamic directions.” Lebanon – this was clearly reflected in the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ address – is on the forefront in the fight against terrorism, however people feel being left down by the rest of the world, “that does nothing but give lip service, there is no protection or defence of Christians.” 20 years ago, more than one million Christians lived in Iraq. In early 2014 there were only 400,000 left. Today there are less than 200,000. It is a war against culture. Holy Christian sites are being devastated, and people are systematically humiliated or expelled. The minister appealed to the international community to put an end to these machinations. Behind the expulsions he did not only see religious fanaticism, but in his opinion, this were the tools to try and enforce a policy strategy, which aimed at organising a new Middle East. There is fear of a domino effect that will capture the Middle East and go on to other regions of the world. The Arab world had failed to react to the IS and its ideology in time. If it succeeded to expel the Christians from this region, the geopolitical balance of the region would be lost and a division into several parts would happen, the speaker warned. “Russia”, so the Minister of Foreign Affairs, “has been active in order to achieve a balance in the Middle East. Russia has always throughout history been a supporter of the region’s independence.” The roots of Christianity are in the Middle East region. From here, the Christians once came, and here is also the place where they want to live. Nobody, the Foreign Minister said, knew better how to treat their Muslim brothers. For centuries they had lived together and developed together. Christians played a vital role in connecting the various religions. While ending his speech, he appealed to the international community, to help solving this problem.
The Foreign Minister of Armenia also expressed the importance of the Middle East for humanity. “The Middle East is a unique region where multiculturality is reality. It is a place where different cultures have developed, including Christianity.” He went on to describe the increasing threat that Christians were exposed to in the current conflict situation. Unfortunately the persecution of Christians in this region was nothing extraordinary. While Christians represented 20 percent of the population at the beginning of the 20th century, it was now only a mere 5 percent at the beginning of the 21st century. We must not assume, he explained that the attacks on religious groups, particularly the Christians in Iraq and Syria are purely motivated by religion. It had been repeatedly emphasized that the support of terrorists from neighbouring countries must be stopped. In this respect Armenia firmly supported the implementation of the Security Council Resolution.
Further contributions outlined the devastating conflict in the Middle East. The majority of the panel were of the opinion that it was not just a conflict motived by religion, but that political targets were behind it. Mother Agnes, a nun from Syria, made it perfectly clear that the conflict was instigated by the US, which aimed at bringing about a regime change in Syria. In her opinion, the IS’ invigoration was only possible under the eyes of the US. A photograph showing Republican Senator Mc Caine with the leader of the IS, Al Baghdadi, confirmed the suspected link between the US and the IS, even if the official media would like to make believe us otherwise. Therefore, it was also clear why the IS was able to spread so quickly and why it was fought only half-heartedly by the US and its allies. The strikes against the Assad government have led to a spread of extremists in this region which again were supported by the US. The so-called “Clash of Civilisations” was the result of provocation and manipulation aimed at achieving geopolitical goals, she maintained. The problem was not between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Neither was the “Clash of Civilisations” caused by the “incompatibility of various religions.” The conflicts were not inherent, but the result of political manoeuvring. Many times more moderate Muslims than Christians paid with their lives for their faith. The affected area of the Middle East had become a place where human rights were ignored. In former times, living in Syria had been no problem for Christians. Now, however, in the areas occupied by the so-called Free Syrian Army, life for Christians was hardly possible. For all speakers was clear that the ongoing “cultural war” was only a superficial interpretation and that in the background there was the struggle for supremacy in the Middle East. This had to be addressed and brought to the attention of the Human Rights Council. •
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