Thursday, June 28, 2012

Fighting global warming locally

It is generally agreed that the recent UN conference called Rio+20 on sustainable development, held in Rio de Janeiro, was a disappointment, but this was already expected by many observers for whom it was over even before it began.

The final declaration confirms this expectation. In the 50 or so page communiqué, entitled "The Future We Want," world leaders largely repeated previous climate pledges, rather than pressing forward to deal with the urgent needs of a world threatened by environmental disaster.

The summit document is an inadequate response to the risks posed by global warming. While it does name fighting poverty as one of the most important goals for the future and contains a commitment to an economy that takes a more sustainable approach to the world's resources, no clear targets or a timetable are included.

Without such targets and dates, it is just words on paper. The lives of future generations will be affected if we fail to act now on climate change. This communiqué does not set out a path towards the future that the world so urgently needs. We can and must do more. Governments today seem unwilling and unable to do more.

Global warming is at its root a spiritual problem. As long as governments look at the problem in largely economic terms, it will never be solved. For one thing, the pressure of powerful lobbies funded by major corporations are too powerful to resist. In addition, governments are motivated by political considerations, especially when elections are looming. Moreover, many governments have a strong ideological bias.

The mantra of debt reduction is frequently invoked by governments to justify the rejection of environmental measures that might cost substantial amounts and, it is claimed, hurt the economy. Whole industries insist that the economy would be devastated if these measures were implemented. Thus many governments only paid lip service to the environmental concerns that were raised at the Rio conference.

In the past governments might have signed on to many environmental measure, but now no more. Canada, to my shame, was in the forefront of the attempts to make the communiqué meaningless.

Rio 2012 confirms my opinion that we can no longer expect governments to act in good faith when it comes to fighting global warming. They are unwilling to act because of the economic and political cost involved.

The alternative to governmental actions is for local communities to take the initiative. There are many such communities. Too many, in fact, to enumerate. What they have going for them is a degree of independence from the economic and political forces that shape governments.

In contrast to the "top-down" actions of governments, this initiative is from the "bottom-up." The former has the weight of authority but is also heavy with bureaucracy, while the latter is close to those who will be most immediately affected by global warming.

Governments can legislate actions, but the actual implementation is the job of communities and individuals. Without their concurrence, nothing will happen. With their active participation, global warming can be fought effectively, as long as it is not yet too late so that the "turning point" has arrived.

Communities can help to direct and channel these efforts to slow down the rate of global warming. People need encouragement, so that they know that their efforts are not in vain. But first they need direction so that they will know what to do.

I just came back from a long trip by road through parts of the US and Canada. Several times, while travelling through urban centers, I was stuck in traffic that moved at a snail pace. Such gridlock makes me happy that I do not have to commute to work every day the way many people who live in or near such centers have to. 

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I live near a subway station, thus I do not own a car. I rent one if I need to travel outside the city. But many people choose to live outside the city and are forced to drive long distances, often facing gridlock, on a daily basis.

Some city councilors in Toronto are now proposing a much needed major extension of the transit system. This proposal will require the approval of the population, which means an increase in property taxes for four years, or a similar measure, in order to fund it.

Such local initiatives are urgently needed, since governments insist that the necessary funds are unavailable. The mayor of Toronto, who was elected on a pro-car platform, refuses to accept any transit proposals that require increased taxes. He claims that he can raise these funds privately, but so far he has not succeeded. 

Faith communities ought to be in the forefront in the fight against global warming. They are the ones who can speak openly about stewardship, the care of creation. They recognize the spiritual nature of the struggle and are prepared to do what they can to slow down global warming.

My own denomination just accepted a lengthy but excellent report on climate change, in spite of the refusal of some synodical delegates to acknowledge the human contribution to global warming. Synod encouraged local churches and individuals to do what they can to care for creation.

I applaud this initiative. While it may not accomplish much on the global scale, it is a step in the right direction and an encouragement to those who have been fighting global warming for a long time already.

I expect governments to do very little from now on when it comes to global warming. The difficulties of reaching ambitious deals between so many countries have become more apparent in the last decade, especially after the 2008 global economic collapse and the more recent debt crisis in Europe.

Some of the worlds biggest companies were also represented at Rio+20. Even though they made several promising announcements, I do not expect much progress here either.

Local initiatives are thus the only viable avenue that is left for the foreseeable future. Remember, global warming is real. Let all of us try to do what we can to fight it. Can I count on you to do your part?


Monday, June 18, 2012

What is the cost of war?

"God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God" (Matthew 5:9).

What is the cost of war? The Economist in a recent book review of two recent historical studies on World War II provides some disturbing statistics.

Although estimates differ, according to the review, between 1939 and 1945 as many as 70m people died as a direct consequence of fighting, with two-thirds of them non-combatants. Nearly 10% of all Germans died, and 30% of their army. In addition, about 15m Chinese perished and 27m Soviets. Poland lost 16% of its population, about half of them Jews. On average, nearly 30,000 people were killed every day.

Yet even these statistics, as horrific as they are, cannot begin to express the real cost of war. Nor do any figures that try to express the cost in terms of dollars and cents. One study came up with the following table, after converting the 1945 figures into what they would cost in 2005 dollars:

Financial Cost of World War II

U.S.$341 billion in 1945would cost$3,582,143,803,399.78 in 2005

Germany$272 billion in 1945would cost$2,857,311,186,289.56 in 2005

Soviet Union$192 billion in 1945would cost$2,016,925,543,263.22 in 2005

Britain$120 billion in 1945would cost$1,260,578,464,539.51 in 2005

Italy$94 billion in 1945would cost$987,453,130,555.95 in 2005

Japan$56 billion in 1945would cost$588,269,950,118.44 in 2005
Total$1.075 trillion in 1945would cost$11,292,682,078,166.46 in 2005

Compare these figures with new revelations about the cost of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
It is estimated that the final bill will be at least $3.7 trillion and could reach as high as $4.4 trillion, according to the research project "Costs of War" by Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies (

The total amount appropriated for war-related activities of the Department of Defense, intelligence and State Department since 2001 was about $1.3 trillion, and that would rise to nearly $1.4 trillion sometime in 2012. This amount is rising by the second (

But those numbers will increase since they overlook costs such as long-term obligations to wounded veterans and projected war spending from 2012 through 2020. The estimates do not include at least $1 trillion more in interest payments coming due and many billions more in expenses that cannot be counted, according to the study.

The same study concluded that, in human terms, 224,000 to 258,000 people died directly from warfare, including 125,000 civilians in Iraq. Many more have died indirectly, from the loss of clean drinking water, healthcare, and nutrition. And an additional 365,000 were wounded and 7.8 million people displaced.

Another way of expressing the financial cost is by calculating what all that money might have bought. A study has calculated that one day of the Iraq War cost 720 million dollars and asked how it could have been spent:

        One day of the Iraq War = 84 new elementary schools
        One day of the Iraq War = 12,478 elementary school teachers
        One day of the Iraq War = 95,364 head start places for children
        One day of the Iraq War = 1,153,846 children with free school lunches
        One day of the Iraq War = 34,904 four-year scholarships for university students
        One day of the Iraq War = 163,525 people with health care
        One day of the Iraq War = 423,529 children with health care
        One day of the Iraq War = 6,482 families with homes
        One day of the Iraq War = 1,274,336 homes with renewable energy

Since money can only be spent once, these alternatives represent a cost of the war that is easily overlooked. Imagine what would be possible if war, any war or better even all war, were eliminated.

In addition to the human casualties in terms of deaths and disabled veterans and the financial costs, we must include many costs that are difficult to determine or are not quantifiable. These include the suffering caused to the spouses and children of the dead and injured.

The indirect deaths and wounded must also be included, not only because of the suffering that has been incurred on them and their families but also because such casualties have proven to be a fruitful breading ground for future "terrorists." This has been an unintended yet serious consequence of these wars.

As with former US wars, the costs of paying for veterans’ care into the future will be a sizable portion of the full costs of the war. Meanwhile, the debt increases.

The ripple effects on the U.S. economy have also been significant, including job loss and interest rate increases, and those effects have been under-appreciated and thus not counted.

There are more consequences, many more more. The wars have been accompanied by an erosion of civil liberties at home and an increase in human rights violations abroad.

Serious and compelling alternatives to war were scarcely considered in the aftermath of 9/11 or in the discussion about war against Iraq. Some of those alternatives are still available to the US.

Let's try to measure the cost yet another way by asking: What did the United States gain for its trillions?

Strategically, the results for the US are mixed. Although Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are dead, Iraq and Afghanistan are far from stable democracies. 

It was expected that the US invasions would bring democracy to both, but the two countries continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom, with warlords continuing to hold power in Afghanistan with US support, and Iraqi communities more segregated today than before by gender and ethnicity as a result of the war. 

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the latest in a series of wars going back millennia. While we lack records of the number of casualties of many conflicts, when we go back that far the Bible is an exception.

If we add together the number of people, both combatants and non-combatants, who were killed in battles in the Bible, then the total comes to about 1,283,000. But the casualties in the battle recorded in 2 Chronicles 13 -- 500,00 --are so much larger than all the others that this figure should probably be adjusted.

Nevertheless, these figures from the Bible are mind-boggling. If in recent history 50,000 people had been killed in one battle, that war would quickly have come to an end. The public, at least in western countries, would never accept that many casualties. 

Yet, as the casualty figures for WWII reveal, the loss of life was already mind-boggling during that war -- an average of 30,000 people were killed each day.

Is war necessary? Can the world afford these stupendous costs? No matter how we measure the cost, wars are too expensive. The price of getting rid of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussain, and Osama bin Laden was very high. Was it justified? Were there perhaps ways that these particular wars could have been averted? No, and yes.
Are there alternatives to war? In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, many people disagreed with the decision to go to war after 9/11. Diplomacy might have been a better option.
War is the failure of diplomacy. War is rooted in violence. Instead, we must seek non-violent ways to solve the world's problems. This may seem idealistic and even naive. Yet, if this brief survey of the cost of war can teach us anything, it is that war is one alternative that the world can no longer afford. The cost is simply too great for the world to bear any longer.
The world needs peacemakers, not warmongers. War will not disappear until violence finally ends. That will not happen until Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, returns.
Unfortunately, there are still too many Christians today who use the Bible to justify war. In the 21st century, however, there is no just war and no justification for it. 

Wars will one day cease, as Isaiah prophecies: "The LORD will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore" (2:4).

For me, that day cannot come soon enough!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Are Israelis racists?

Israel is currently experiencing a flood of biblical proportions. Some 60,000 illegal African immigrants have arrived in Israel; most in the past few years. They claim to be refugees who face starvation at home.

The majority, about 35,000, are from Eritrea and Sudan and have been given collective protection from expulsion by the Israeli government. Most of these people have been given temporary but renewable permits to live in Israel but they have not been given the right to work nor the benefit of any social services other than schooling for their children.

Another 25,000 Africans come from countries such as Ethiopia and South Sudan, with which Israel has diplomatic relations and whose lives would not likely be at risk if returned. These people too have sought asylum, but the majority have been placed in holding tanks in southern Israel.

These thousands of people, who are fleeing violence and poverty in countries of Northeast Africa, find their way to Israel, mostly by infiltrating across the desert frontier from Sinai.

Now Israelis are facing a dilemma. Do they admit the asylum-seekers and consider each one’s case, even though they arrived illegally? Does it matter that many arrived by paying Bedouin smugglers hefty sums to transport them and that many have reportedly been abused and some even killed? Or do they deport them, even though may suffer by being returned? Do they lock them up? What should they do?

With few exceptions, Israel offers full legal status only to Jews and some Arabs, who have lived, or whose ancestors lived, in Israel when the state was born.

Out of the thousands of Africans that have applied for refugee status, only 450 Sudanese, all from Darfur, have been approved for permanent residency in Israel. The rest are living on temporary visas, but with all sorts of limitations. 

After a young Jewish woman was raped in Tel Aviv, allegedly by a group of African refugees, riots erupted. What followed was the spread of demonstrations and violent protests against all African infiltrators. Some homes were firebombed. The protesters were often joined and egged on by right-wing politicians.

"The Sudanese are a cancer in our body," Likud member of parliament Miri Regev told a veritable mob of hundreds of Tel Aviv protesters. "We will do everything to send them back where they came from."  She later apologized, but not to the Africans whom she had attacked but to cancer patients who might have taken umbrage and to Holocaust survivors who may have felt aggrieved at the comparison.

One politician urged that all the Africans be imprisoned on military bases. Another hard-right parliamentarian stated that infiltrators should be shot when they enter Israel.

At a time of economic stress and with great demands being made on Israel's housing and health facilities, many Israelis ask whether their country can afford the addition of so many needy people, especially since they’re not Jews.

Some Israeli media quoted an unnamed police official saying "asylum-seekers are involved in some 40 per cent of the crimes committed in the Tel Aviv area." The notion went viral, but days later when the Knesset's Research and Information Center checked the statistics, it discovered that less than 1 per cent of criminal files opened by police in Tel Aviv in 2010 were against Africans.

The damage was done, however. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu ordered that the deportation of the 25,000 asylum seekers from Ethiopia and South Sudan be expedited and that holding facilities for the 35,000 other African migrants be built in the Negev desert as quickly as possible.

Refugees from Africa were arrested and ordered to leave Tel Aviv for the country’s periphery. Many of them did, leaving behind jobs, apartments and community.

Netanyahu declared these migrants a national security threat, endangering the country's Jewish majority. He also warned that without the ongoing construction of a steel wall along the Egyptian border, where migrants cross, as well as mass deportation, Israel would be swamped by a "continent" looking for work.

He also warned that the lack of any real separation between Egypt and Israel is being used for trafficking of drugs and people and presents a risk to national security. His government's policy is to minimize the chance of anybody infiltrating the country. Since there is no other way for asylum seekers to enter Israel, however, that basically means Israel's doors will be closed for them.

His government has passed a new law enabling the incarceration of asylum seekers for three years without trial or appeal, and the early deportation of Southern Sudanese. 

This is not the first time that there has been an influx of Africans to Israel. Some Ethiopian Jews, known as Beta Israel, about 120,000 people in total, reside in Israel under its Law of Return, which gives Jews and those with Jewish parents or grandparents, as well as their spouses, the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. Today 81,000 Ethiopian Israelis were born in Ethiopia, while 38,500 or 32% of the community are native born Israelis.

But the Ethiopian Jewish community's integration into Israeli society has been complicated by racist attitudes on the part of some elements of Israeli society and even the official establishment. Intermarriage is the main issue. In a 2007 poll, more than half of Israeli Jews equated intermarriage with “national treason.” 

Remarkably, Israel's foreign ministry headed by Avigdor Liebermann, who has been shunned internationally for his anti-Arab polemic, added a rare plea for tolerance. In a statement condemning the arson attack on Eritreans, the ministry declared, "Jewish history compels us to take exceptional caution on these matters of injury to the other, the guest and the foreigner."

Jewish refugees 1939

It is ironic that Israel, a nation born in 1948 as a consequence of the racist ideology of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, with the resultant Holocaust, should now be charged by with racism. That may seem far fetched, but current attitudes in Israel suggest this.

Clearly, Israeli Arabs have experienced racism, and there also has been discrimination against Ethiopian Jews. Yet, as some scholars point out, the answer to the question of whether racism exists in Israel depends on the definition of racism adopted. If racism is restricted to beliefs that a given biological race is superior, then one can argue that racism does not prevail in Israel, but ethnocentrism is extensive.

In spite of this clarification, racist views are present in portions of the Israeli population. This may be the best explanation for the recent protests about the arrival of the African immigrants. Not everyone in Israel is a racist, but segments of the population evidently are. Some political parties in Israel cater to these people. Hence the extreme voices of certain politicians.

Israel, the Jewish nation-state, is the only country in which Jews make up a majority of the citizens. Just over three quarters, or 75.5%, of the population are Jews from a diversity of Jewish backgrounds. Approximately 68% of Israeli Jewsare Israeli-born, 22% are immigrants from Europe and the Americas, and 10% are immigrants from Asia and Africa, including the Arab world.

Large-scale immigration, whether from Africa or elsewhere of substantial numbers of non-Jews, could upset the careful balance that insures that this Jewish majority persists. 

This Jewishness is also maintained through the laws governing marriage that, among other things, marriages must always be carried out by the religious authorities of an approved faith, but couples who come from different religions, or none at all, cannot legally marry in Israel, whether citizens or not. 

All branches of Orthodox Judaism refuse to accept any validity or legitimacy of intermarriages. Conservative Judaism does not sanction intermarriage, although Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism both permit it.

The religious affiliation of Israeli Jews varies widely: a social survey of those over the age of 20 indicates that 55% say they are "traditional", while 20% consider themselves "secular Jews", 17% define themselves as "Religious Zionists"; 8% define themselves as "Haredi Jews."

These ultra-Orthodox or Haredim are a very fast growing group and are expected to represent more than one-fifth of Israel's Jewish population by 2028.  Most secular Jews view their Jewish identity as a matter of culture, heritage, nationality, or ethnicity, rather than of religion.

Muslims, who make up 16% of the population, constitute Israel's largest religious minority. About 2% of the population are Christian and 1.5% are Druze.

Israel needs to recognize its obligations under international law to provide refugee status to those who have legitimate claims. It must not stuff them into camps without trial or appeal, nor should it deport these people without providing them with a proper hearing.

To the outside world what is happening in Israel smacks of racism. I heard on the radio some Israelis who work with refugees use the term. Again, it is a matter of definition, but there does seem to be elements in Israel who are racists and who should be condemned for their racism.

The sign reads: "No racism!"

The onus is now on the Israeli government to demonstrate that racism is not officially sanctioned but is the work of a minority of Israelis. It must put into practice the human rights code that it has adopted, as well as all the international obligations that has approved, including the 1951 UN Refugee Treaty, which states that those who have escaped their homes because their lives were in danger -- due to their race, religion, nationality or political opinion -- should not be deported back to their country.

Israeli Jews should learn from history the importance of making these Africans feel welcome in Israel. If the world had only accepted boatloads of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during the 1930s, the Holocaust might never have happened. And, for that matter, the history of the Middle East might have been entirely different.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Obama's secret "kill list"

Sometimes one reads items that one would rather not read. Such is a recent exposé in the New York Times that has pulled back the curtain on one of the US administration’s darker secrets. It reveals that President Barack Obama personally pores over “kill lists” in America’s shadowy drone war on Al Qaeda and its ilk, and signs off personally on the major hits.

This extensive report chronicles in great detail how the president insists on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official has called the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. Obama reserves for himself the final moral calculation of what to do when, for example, a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist presents itself -- but his family is with him.

Aides say Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. As a student of the "just war" theory of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the president believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. Obama is applying this theory to a brutal modern conflict. He knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.

Obama has displayed striking self-confidence in these drone attacks. He believes, according to several people who have worked closely with him, that his own judgment should be brought to bear on strikes. Thomas Donilon, his national security adviser, explains that he is "a president who is quite comfortable with the use of force on behalf of the United States."

President Obama with Thomas Donilon and John Brennan, his top counterterrorism adviser

The procedure for the kill lists is this: every week or so, more than 100 members of the sprawling national security apparatus of the government gather, by secure video teleconference, to pore over terrorist suspects’ biographies and to recommend to the president who should be the next one to die.

These nominations then go to the White House, where at his own insistence the president must approve any name. He signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia, and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan -- about a third of the total. 

“Their policy is to take out high-value targets, versus capturing high-value targets,” the New York Times quotes Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, as saying. “They are not going to advertise that, but that’s what they are doing.” 

But Obama’s aides deny such a policy, arguing that capture is often impossible in the rugged tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen and that many terrorist suspects are in foreign prisons because of American tips. They add that great care is taken in choosing targets and through reliance on the drone as a precision weapon.

Yet there have been many civilian casualties. The president has embraced a highly disputed method for counting civilian casualties. It counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.   This new counting method helps to explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths.

Missile strikes by drone aircraft have killed as many as 2,300 Al Qaeda, Taliban and “associated forces” since Sept. 11, 2001, and as many as 500 civilians. Fighters in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia and Yemen have been targeted. Most of the attacks have been on Obama’s watch, as was the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Obama's focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he envisioned at the start of his presidency. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when he became president.

Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power by running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

The New York Times interviewed three dozen of his current and former advisers, who describe Obama's personal supervision of the shadow war with Al Qaeda as being without precedent in presidential history. It has also provided excerpts from some of these interviews.

The White House insists that its targeted killings policy is legal, careful and limited, but the American Civil Liberties Union, UN experts, and academics all disagree. They point to an absence of accountability, a lack of legal safeguards and a surfeit of secrecy. They charge that currently the president can function as judge, jury and executioner.

Many people argue that the expanding drone war raises profoundly troubling questions about the limits of American presidential power, a concern that was heightened by the George W. Bush years, in particular the lawfulness of the “targeted killings” policy. 

The Obama administration has an obligation to disclose when and where it has authorized targeted killings, UN expert Philip Alston noted in a report in 2010. It should justify its action under international law and spell out its criteria for putting a person on a kill list. It should also explain why the killing is legal and what follow-up there is when civilians are killed.

Others have proposed that specialized US national security judges should review and approve decisions to target individuals, and review any strikes after the fact. Military actions must necessarily be covert. But the president’s actions ought to be accountable, and the entire process must be transparent and lawful.

They add that a drone war raises the specter of anarchy if other nations claim a similar blanket right to target enemies wherever and whenever they see fit. If Americans can do it, why not the Chinese, or anyone else? 

They conclude that a US president who managed to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has wound down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taken out bin Laden, helped liberate Libya, and has put a stop to military torture should be up to the task of reassuring the world that the war on terror is being waged in a way that will not encourage global anarchy.

In addition to all that has been been said thus far about these "kill lists," I question the propriety of any state-sanctioned killings, whether authorized by the president or anyone else. As a longtime advocate of active non-violence, I do not accept the argument that such killings are necessary for reasons of national security.

Who gives the president that right? Certainly not the God who commanded, "You shall not kill." Such killings cannot be justified. The war on terror does not trump ethics. Even if Al Qaeda resorts to unethical behavior, that does not justify the US resorting to actions that are dubious under international law and, more important, are contrary to God's law.

What makes the US different from Al Qaeda when both kill people? The US argues that it does so in order to stop terrorism by killing terrorists before they can kill more people. Such an action is in direct violation of several principles of the "just war" theory, even if the war on terror is undeclared.

I do not mean to condone terrorist activities; nevertheless, I do want to state that the secret "kill lists" are an important test of Obama's principles. Many foreigners were shocked by these revelations about Obama. Muslims especially have become disillusioned with the president. They expected more from him, especially after his speech in Cairo in which he sought a common ground between Muslims and the US. But that hope has now been dashed to pieces. The intended victims of many of the drone attacks have been Muslims.

Some Americans have also been taken aback by Obama’s up-close-and-personal involvement in these attacks, but that is not likely to hurt his bid for re-election in November. His counter-terrorism policies have eroded the widely-held political perception that the Democrats are weak on national security.

In an election year, therefore, it does not hurt Obama to be viewed as as a flinty commander-in-chief who can make the tough calls after consulting a small circle of advisers. After the New York Times article, Mitt Romney, who just became the Republican candidate for the presidency, will no longer be able to portray the president as "failing to lead" on the world stage. 

But the price Obama has to pay is enormous. He is widely acknowledged as a man of great principle, but he has capitulated to the urgent demands of national security. That is regrettable. No doubt, he believes that he can maintain his principles even in the context of approving the drone attacks. But increasingly people are questioning the president's actions. 

Sometimes one reads items that one would rather not read. Many people probably wish they had never read these revelations. Yet denial now does not make them disappear. What is needed are even more revelations and much more transparency so that the whole world may know what really happens in the White House.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Protecting the Christian minority in the Middle East

How can the Christian minority best be protected throughout the Middle East, but now especially in Syria? As will be readily apparent, there is no simple solution to this problem, which has become more acute after the massacre in Houla of 108 men, women and children.

The world was properly outraged. Many voices are demanding military intervention, but that is only one of various options: some of them are ineffective, while others, such as military intervention, are very difficult to implement. There is little public will to pursue the latter, although some variant of it looks increasingly likely. As I asked already in my previous post: What can the world do? At the moment, very little.

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) just came out with a statement strongly opposing military intervention in Syria. The ROC is worried what might happen to the Christian minority if President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power. Christians, it is claimed, have been reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition in the uprising against al-Assad, fearing persecution at those same hands if he were to fall.

Christians in the past have enjoyed a relatively high degree of religious tolerance and ability to worship freely. But this has now changed dramatically.  As the fighting has continued, Christians now find themselves caught in the middle. They are generally seen to be pro-Assad because he has assured them that their future is more secure with him in power.

Whether the Christians indeed support the regime as extensively as some reports suggest is something that is difficult to determine. Many Christians, no doubt, are afraid of the Islamist influence on the uprising, but they are also afraid of the shabiha militia that the regime uses to punish the opposition and their supporters.

The perceived pro-government stance of the Christians has led to opposition forces attacking churches. Church leaders have reported Muslim neighbors turning on the Christians, and that Muslim extremists from other countries have been coming to Syria to join the fighting. Christians have also suffered kidnappings and gruesome murders. Life is exceedingly difficult for Christians in Syria.

Christians constitute about 10% of the population in Syria. The ROC, which has long had close ties with many Christians there, is concerned that these believers, most of whom are Orthodox, would be swept away by a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism when the current regime is gone.

The largest Christian denomination is the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, closely followed by the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and then the Syriac Orthodox Church. In addition, there is the Armenian Apostolic Church, as well as several Protestant churches. The city of Aleppo is said to have the largest number of Christians in Syria, although there are also other sizable Christian communities (see chart below).

The ROC saw what happened in Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein when one million Christians left the country. They are fearful that this will also happen in Syria, and throughout the Middle East, where they realize that the number of Christians has been steadily declining.

It is dropping due to such factors as low birth rates as compared with Muslims, extensive immigration, as well as persecution, which has intensified in recent decades. It is estimated that at the present rate, the number of Christians in the Middle East will likely drop from 12 million to 6 million by the year 2020.

Today Christians make up only 5% of the population of the Middle East, which is down from 20% in the early 20th century. Cypriot Greeks live in the only Christian majority state in this region.

The worsening political and security situation during the fifteen months of uprising has left a huge negative impact on the lives of all Syrians in general, and Christians in particular. The economic sanctions that forbid any exports from Syria and the transfer of hard currencies to Syria have made the struggle of the poor to gain their daily bread much more difficult.

The majority of Christians in Syria used to belong to the middle-class society who depended largely on their work to provide the basic needs for their families. But now many live in dire need, since many have lost their jobs. Moreover, the situation of those who have lost their homes and were forced to seek refuge in other areas has become even worse.

During this conflict, the majority of church leaders from different confessions and rites have expressed their concern toward the escalation and violence and the repercussions on the minorities, and they have called for their communities to remain calm and to avoid taking sides in this conflict.

Some Christians, however, have taken a strong stance in support of the revolution. Part of their statement reads: "We strongly condemn the attempts of some regime benefactors and thugs to create a schism between Syrian Christians and their fellow citizens who are sacrificing their lives for a better Syria. We would also like to draw attention to the dangers of such actions as they lead to the break-up of national unity and social cohesion among citizens."

The general feeling among the Christian communities is a deep concern based on the reality that where the Arab Spring has flourished, political life has become more fanatic and less tolerant of recognizing equal rights for Christians. Even Tunisia, where the former regime demonstrated a thoroughly secular approach and tradition for more than 50 years, has now turned into an Islamic-dominated government.

The two and a half million Christians in Syria are afraid that the civil war there will result in their being forced to emigrate or face death. That was the choice for many Christians in Iraq, some of whom ironically wound up in Syria. However bad Assad is, he did not especially persecute Christians.

But that will not be the case if and when Al Qaida and other Islamist extremists in the opposition become more powerful. Though these fanatics are not a majority within the opposition, the fog of war is likely to provide them with cover for their anti-Christian attacks.

For the moment, the regime continues to provide protection to the Christian communities in almost all places where it still controls the ground. Yet in Homs about 200 Christians were killed after protesters and Islamic groups gained control of a part of the city where these Christians lived. Christians are concerned too about terrorists who can target anyone anywhere, even Christian military officers and their families in their homes, with impunity.

The response of the ROC is one-sided and does not properly recognize the complexity of the situation. The stance of the church is very much in sync with that of the Russian government, which is strongly opposed too to outside intervention in Syria, which it regards both as a partner and as its last foothold in the Middle East. While the ROC does not determine Russian foreign policy, it does make a resolution of the Syrian crisis that much more difficult.

Should the global Christian community lend their support to the position adopted by the ROC? Hardly! The choice ought not to be between support for an oppressive regime, because it purports to protect their co-religionists, or the adoption of a stance in support of the opposition so that, one day, the killings may stop and peace reigns once more in Syria.

Whether Russia is the best option for resolving the crisis through diplomacy, because of its close relationship with Syria, as I suggested in my last post, remains to be seen. The intransigence of the ROC, as exemplified in its recent statement, does not bode well, especially since this merely strengthens the prevailing  Russian attitude.

Christians should not have to face the dilemma of choosing between such alternatives as support for fellow believers or of ending tyranny. But that is a false dilemma, since these alternatives are not as clear as people, including the ROC, might wish. It is not at all clear what the fate of Christians in Syria might be, not is it clear what role the Islamists will play in that country after the ouster of the current regime.

Perhaps the Islamists may soon become the most powerful force in many countries throughout the Middle East. But that development is by no means assured. If so, the world will have to learn to live with that and to do whatever is possible to protect those who will most threatened by it.

Not everything is hopeless, as Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain recognized in his Easter speech at 10 Downing Street: “There’s also an enormous danger in terms of the persecution of minorities and particularly the persecution of Christians. Now, Britain is fully engaged in the world; we have the second largest aid budget of any country in the world. We’re one of the few countries keeping our promise to spend 0.7% of GDP on aid, and we do have real influence, real heft in these countries. I think there’s a really important moment, and this is the challenge, is for the churches and Christians to work together with government on agendas to persuade these newly democratising countries not to persecute minorities and to respect Christians the world over and the right to practise your religion.”

While Cameron may have overestimated the role that Britain can play in the new Middle East that is being shaped by the Arab Spring, he is right in stressing the need for Christians and governments to work together to stop the persecution of minorities and to help protect the right of Christians, and indeed of all believers in the Middle East, to practice their faith without hindrance or restrictions.

If that were to happen, then maybe the ROC might not have to pose such a dilemma as they are doing now. The ROC is a powerful body within Russia, but it should not be allowed to defend a tyrannical regime in the name of protecting other Orthodox believers. Would the ROC have done the same if the Christians in Syria were predominantly Pentecostals? The answer is only too clear.

I invite you to comment on the statement of the ROC or on my response. Also, please share what you have discovered about the situation of Christians throughout the Middle East. There are a lot of conflicting facts, and indeed misinformation, that have been disseminated about their situation. Unfortunately, some reports are virulently anti-Muslim and warn ad nauseam about the threat posed by Islamists.

While this threat is real, it should not be allowed to dominate the discussion and determine who is the most deserving of support. At the end of the day, Christians and Muslims must find a way to live together in the Middle East. And the rest of the world must do what it can to ensure that the rights of everyone, no matter what their faith, is protected.