The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative is a new organization fighting for religious freedom. According to its website:
The rise of ISIS, the declining freedom of speech and communication globally, and the sheer number of religious prisoners around the world pose a critical threat to all of humanity. 21st Century Wilberforce wants to awaken the church to these atrocities and stir Christians and other religious groups to action.
Recently I interviewed Elyse Bauer Anderson, Senior Advisor and Director of Special Projects with the organization.
Conditions seem to be worsening for Christians in Iraq and – particularly – Syria. Is this your impression too, or are there some glimmers of hope?
The situation facing Christians in Iraq and Syria is bleak. Increasingly the global community is starting to recognize that what is taking place is in fact genocide and that it threatens to extinguish ancient faith communities from the lands they’ve inhabited since antiquity.
In war-torn Syria the Assyrian Christian community suffered a devastating blow with the recent large-scale kidnappings. In Iraq, the Christian community is increasingly hopeless in the face of prolonged displacement – they are nomads in their own country. We were told that 12 Christian families leave a day. Few can envision a future for themselves or for their families.
But in the midst of the suffering there are glimmers of hope. When we were in northern Iraq we met a young Iraqi priest who implored our delegation, “Help me to stay.” There are courageous men and women who are persevering in the midst of incredible suffering and hardship and in many cases ministering to and among their people. Their faith is unwavering. They have not allowed their circumstances to dictate what they believe. It is an inspiration.
Your organization is quite new. Were you formed specifically to help Mideast Christians, or are you active in other regions?
Given the crisis facing Christians and other ancient faith communities living in the shadow of the Islamic State, we chose Iraq for our inaugural trip. That said, our focus will be global in nature. Persecution of people of faith is epidemic around the world. From China, to Iran, from Sudan to Pakistan, Christians and other religious minorities are experiencing all manner of hostility, discrimination and abuse.
Your website says you are a “do tank,” not a think tank. What have you been doing so far? What do you hope to do?
We are still in the embryonic stage as an organization, but as we mature we intend to engage in a number of different spheres including advocacy, both at home and abroad, and education, to include training and equipping religious leaders in countries where religious freedom violations routinely occur. A third area of focus will involve prioritizing access to circumvention technology in closed or restricted societies like China and Iran. Some of these initiatives are already beginning to take shape. 21Wilberforce just participated in a training conference for nearly 1,200 Chinese house church pastors and lay leaders in Taiwan. In the face of massive crackdowns in China against people of faith, the church is vibrant and growing there. In fact, the church in the West could arguably stand to learn much from our persecuted brothers and sisters in China, Iraq and around the world – 21Wilberforce hopes to help forge that connection in tangible ways.
Could Western governments be doing more to help besieged Assyrians?
Absolutely. The humanitarian needs are great and more could be done to assist both the internally displaced populations and the refugees throughout the region, to include healthcare and education. But these are mere Band-Aids. Until the Islamic State is ultimately defeated and destroyed there will be no future for Christians in these lands. The Kurdish peshmerga forces are imperfect but they are on the front lines of the battle and they have been willing to take on ISIS from the beginning, notably in areas they consider Kurdish lands. To date, Washington has insisted on sending military aid through Baghdad. As a result, the peshmerga are fighting with outdated and outmoded weaponry. This is a diplomatic calculation more than it is a strategic military decision – and one that could be easily overturned.
Is military force an answer? Could we in the West be doing something to help Christians build their own defense forces?
Congress has been debating the Authorization of Use of Military Force against the Islamic State. This is a much-needed and long overdue discussion. Military force must be on the table. In the interim, the administration already has the authority to aid what is known as the Nineveh Protective Unit, which is effectively a defensive national guard unit. The Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities were abandoned and left defenseless in the face of the Islamic State’s murderous onslaught last summer. These units are an important first step in these vulnerable communities being able to defend themselves moving forward.
What else can Western Christians, and others, do to help suffering Assyrians?
Of course we in the West can pray for our brothers and sister in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. This is but one way of standing in solidarity with the suffering church. But there is more. We can learn their stories, and we can be their advocates. We can raise these issues with our elected officials, both in Congress and the White House. As legislation and policy comes to the fore which impacts these imperiled communities we can make our voices known so that it is clear that there is in fact a domestic constituency on matters of international religious freedom.
Among the first requests should be to urge the president to fill the vacant post of Special Envoy for Religious Minorities in the Middle East. President Obama signed the bipartisan legislation that created this post into law last August, thereby making it the law of the land. While an envoy alone does not hold the key to this complex crisis, having a senior person at the State Department focused exclusively on advocating for these communities and developing policy options aimed at guaranteeing their survival, and ultimately flourishing, is a critical first step.
Elyse, thank you very much.