Minority safety should be prioritised by EU foreign ministers

Safe havens for Christian and other minorities in the Middle East should be a foreign policy priority for the EU and Ireland, writes Rónán Mullen

THIS year marks the 100th anniversary of the world’s first modern genocide — the mass murder of Armenian Christians and other minorities by the Turkish Ottoman government begun in 1915.

“Who, after all, remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” Adolf Hitler wrote in a 1939 memo to his generals, justifying his case for mass slaughter. Modern Turkey refuses to acknowledge the genocide, but that famous quote has left posterity in no doubt.

Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. Between 800,000 and 1.5m Armenian Christians died in Ottoman Turkey.

Isis-type horrors raged — beheadings, rape, sex slavery, mass killing. It was genocide then, even if not all Armenians and not all Christians were ever going to be destroyed (only those in the Ottoman Empire and within its reach). And today it’s happening in the Middle East.

Minority safety should be prioritised by EU foreign ministers

Christians may be safe elsewhere, but they are systematically targeted in Isis territory. Non-Christian minorities like Yazidis and Turkmen fare even worse — they are treated as pagans and sorcerers and suffer accordingly.

Faced with the greatest refugee crisis in generations, with hundreds of thousands pleading at our borders for mercy and shelter, it can be easy for western countries to miss the detail.

Pope Francis has not minced his words, though. “In this third world war, waged piecemeal … a form of genocide — and I stress the word genocide – is taking place, and it must end,” he said in July.

Democratic and Republican members of the US Congress have joined forces to propose the naming of this genocide and calling for action.

And here? Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald recently went to Paris for a conference on ‘Victims of Ethnic & Religious Violence in the Middle East’. There was no media coverage in Ireland, and our Government remains silent. Yet the question remains: Where do the Middle East’s persecuted minorities figure in the Irish and EU response to the migration crisis?

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald

Somewhere between the wish of Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, to take only Christians and Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney’s recent comment that religion (and presumably ethnicity) should never be a factor, lie some inconvenient truths.

The majority of those fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere, numerically speaking, are Muslims. But some minorities, including Muslim minorities, face particular terrors.

Anti-Christian violence in some refugee camps has prevented fearful Christians from taking refuge there, and to rely instead on the kindness of parishes and individuals in Lebanon and elsewhere.

Syria’s Christian leaders, lamenting the uprooting of Christian culture from their ancient homeland, plead with their terrified flock to stay and call on the international community to create safe havens.

Yazidis face particular terrors from Isis, including women and girls being traded as sexual slaves (this has happened to some Christians too). But because Yazidis refuse to marry outside their own community, resettling them elsewhere poses particular problems. Whole communities must be moved together.

There are no easy answers to all this, but here are some ideas to frame a just response:

Pope Francis’s call for parishes to welcome families should inspire us. We need a generous but structured, structured but generous, intake of people fleeing war and persecution.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Religion or ethnicity should not determine our attitude to those who suffer. EU actions should not, for example, send a message that what happens to Muslims is less important than what happens to Christians. Muslim refugees are in the majority and their accommodation is part of the solution.

If everybody cannot be accommodated (the EU’s proposed intake of 160,000 falls far short of the numbers flowing westward), we need criteria to honour equal human dignity while paying attention to the most vulnerable.

Those targeted directly for their religion or ethnicity deserve particular care. Special channels for groups like Christians, Yazidis, and Turkmen are legitimate as part of a wider, generous, response.

Dealing with the “administrative” problem by preferring those who can travel or help with labour market demands is unjust. The EU must consider the people remaining in camps or situations of danger in their countries of origin. There is a need to protect and care for arriving migrants, but maybe others should have first call on permanent resettlement.

Safe havens for Christian and other minorities in the Middle East should be a foreign policy priority for the EU and Ireland.

Wealthy Middle Eastern nations must be pressured to accommodate refugees in a humanitarian way. Some, like the UAE, say they do. Others, like Saudi Arabia, don’t.

Face the obvious questions. Pope Francis has urged us to be generous, while acknowledging the risk of infiltration by extremists.

Minority safety should be prioritised by EU foreign ministers

The greater ease of integrating Christian migrants into countries that are historically or currently Christian may be relevant to the future stability of the continent.

In the context of a generous response, no such idea should be taboo. Europe must ensure that people coming in subscribe to the rule of law and western values of respect for democracy, freedom of belief and non-belief, the equal dignity of men and women and so on. That is common sense.

These ideas are just a momentary contribution to our national debate about a fast-moving emergency situation. All of us have a responsibility to stay concerned by the issues during the distracting political season ahead.

We must keep the pressure on those in power. I am writing this because, last year, I met some Christians in Lebanon who had fled Syria and were living in a church-run refuge. “Thank you for your prayers and solidarity,” they told us. “But will you give us visas and let us start a new life in your world?” I felt helpless and unhelpful. That unpleasant feeling stays with me.

Rónán Mullen is independent senator for the National University of Ireland

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