Communities of the Willing Working for Religious Freedom for All: An Interview with Chris Seiple

October 30, 2014

In this week’s special edition of MPAC’s DC News and Views, we interviewed Chris Seiple, President of the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE) about his recent trip to the Middle East where he witnessed first-hand the plight of religious minorities due to the continued unrest in the region as a result of the terrorist group, ISIS. Seiple, through his work with IGE has been a religious freedom advocate for all people worldwide, regardless of faith affiliation. His advocacy work is done through partnerships with local communities and a 3NP model: non-profit, non-partisan and non-proselytizing.

The following is a conversation between MPAC’s National Policy Analyst Hoda Elshishtawy and Chris Seiple.

MPAC: You recently came back from Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan where you were there to do something for religious freedom—NOW—focused on the plight of Christians, but serving people of all faiths/none. Can you briefly tell us about your recent trip to the Middle East and the impact of the crisis on the Christian community and religious minorities there, what did you see?

Chris Seiple: A bit of background to my trip: a few ago I got a call from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey. They are Christians who have a heart for the Christians of the Middle East, especially in the Levant/Iraq. They also happen to be movie and TV producers. They’re both Christian and they were both overwhelmingly moved by what was being reported out of the Middle East, particularly out of Syria and Iraq and what was happening to the Christian minority. And, so, it’s perfectly natural that as Christians in a Christian-majority country, that would move them. But on the other hand, it’s just as equally important and natural that as a function of our faith, they would want to work with and serve all communities over there through those local churches. That thinking came to a formal point when the King of Jordan, His Majesty King Abdullah II invited us to meet with the Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches throughout the region. So we went to Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and then we went to Jordan to meet with the Patriarchs and that was the context of our visit.

It was completely moving to see humans of any faith, and none, suffering the way that they were. We met with a lot of Christians, but we also met with Yazidis, Shia and Turkmen; and the conditions were always the same. They had fled their towns as the terrorist state approached -- religion is a function of ISIS but I refuse to call them Islamic. They are terrorists. They approach these towns and everyone had to flee with the shirt on their back in the middle of the night. And the sad part about it is that they are 35 miles from their homes and they can’t go back. Every refugee crisis is a tragedy; this one is a little bit different because most of these folks are middle class -- and it doesn’t make it any better or worse than other refugee crises, but the difference is that when you are a professor teaching at a university in Mosul or any other city and then you find yourself living in a concrete box in an abandoned mall and you can’t provide for your children, and you’re wondering where the rest of the world is -- it’s just devastating. The international community has not come to the rescue, even supplying basic shelters because this crisis happened almost overnight. For whatever reason, folks have not gathered around for a common plan or a common strategy, and now winter is descending on Northern Iraq and it’s a very harsh winter. By United Nations accounts, there are over 800,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Iraq with nothing but the shirt on their backs. And according to the UNHCR, and we met with them in Irbil and in Jordan, they can only account for about 40 percent of the needs of IDPs. That means 60 percent of 800,000 people do not have winterized kits, blankets, tents or shelter. So, there is an enormous need, and it breaks your heart to see this happen especially given the history of the region. The history of the region is that people of all faiths get along.

MPAC: Given that the history of the region is that people of all faiths generally tend to get along, what makes this crisis such a priority for religious freedom advocates?

CS: Every once in a while, something like this happens and the people get through it, but now we seem to be at this breaking point where people might not go back and people are just so fed up and so scared that they want to leave. If we had seen the things that they have seen -- of their women being sold in open markets by the terrorists, seeing their children and families being beheaded and crucified --  we can’t refuse their desire to leave. But I think the whole region is worse because then you don’t have this natural ingredient of minorities that is a buffer among all faiths and traditions and encouraging mutual respect and mutual reliance. It’s much easier to have stereotypes when you have one or two communities like the Shia or Sunni and that way you are inviting civil war. If you have many different kinds of faiths, then maybe there’s less chance of civil war. Now we’ve got to move fast just to get people through the winter and what we’re trying to do is just get a cash infusion through local churches to serve all in the community: of all faiths and those without.

MPAC: This is a very difficult issue because there are a lot of religious, political and social sensitivities surrounding this kind of work. How do you remain focused on working for minorities and empowering religious communities and ensuring their rights without having outside groups trying to sway your mission with their own agenda?

CS: We work around the world to ensure religious freedom. Part of our work right now is in Myanmar where the issue there is to make sure we can create the space to ensure the Muslim minority has a seat at the table within a Buddhist majority culture. How do we work through a majority faith and tradition because they have to feel comfortable with this kind of work because you can work for any minority in any country -- a Muslim minority in Myanmar or a Christian minority in a Muslim majority country like Iraq -- and you can do them a service, or you can do them a disservice in the long term if the majority culture and majority faith isn’t ready to be thinking about things in that way because they are also suffering. In the context of Iraq and Syria, we can never lose sight of the fact that for the last three years, it has been that Muslims have suffered the most and the world has done nothing. Now we are in the situation where in the last few months, Christians have taken the brunt and because of that, a Christian majority country is paying attention to that. How do we take advantage of that and galvanize public opinion toward serving all those who are suffering in Iraq and Syria?

That gets to the part of our work where we are fiercely 3NP: nonprofit, nonpartisan and nonproselytizing. That has to be the key. We believe that we honor the best of our faith traditions, the best of the Golden Rule, found in our traditions, when we work for everyone to have the freedom to believe what they want to believe. That’s the only way to create a safe space to build a coalition around core values and core principles found in all the faiths, and also accepted as international norms and standards. As a function of maturity and a deeper understanding of our faiths, we believe that we glorify God and we honor Him when we don’t impose our faith. We love God by loving our neighbor and that’s the best way to serve people in desperate need. To take advantage of a need and to create a quid pro quo, where I’ll serve you if you change to my faith, is a violation of the faith.

MPAC: You talked earlier about the short term strategy at this point focusing on saving lives with the upcoming harsh winter. How can we as Americans and American Muslims here at home help with ensuring religious freedom for all and to help ensure the safety and rights of religious minorities in the region?

CS: In this tragedy, in this hopelessness, because I’m an optimist and I believe in a God who created the universe, who is sovereign, who doesn’t need us, but longs for us to come alongside what He’s doing, I believe there is an opportunity to build and live a new narrative together. A new narrative of mutual respect and mutual reliance. And in serving those of all faiths/none in Iraq and Syria, we of all faiths/none in America can begin to have this common and renewed narrative. My hope, is that Muslims, Christians and other faiths can come together and work for the same types of folks in Iraq and Syria and this in turn might be a model for other places in the world, such as the Rakhine state in western Myanmar. We need communities of the willing, coalitions that have been organized around immediate crises that become communities because we are in relationships with one another and therefore we can serve other folks who are out of relationships with one another. That’s the type of vision here; not the let’s hold hands and sing songs kind of stuff. The vision won’t work if we’re not being concrete and tangible. That’s what we’re trying to do with the Cradle of Christianity Fund that names a geographic region in the Eastern Mediterranean -- central to all three [Abrahamic] faiths -- and talk about the region in a way that serves everyone in the region, people of al-kitab, of the Book, and those not of the Book, because they are also made by God. Let’s serve them immediately through two things: 1. Cash infusion to families in need and 2. Anything that will help them get through the winter (i.e., kerosene, tents, blankets, etc.).

The best way to do that is could we build a coalition here of folks who agree to common core values of multi-faiths coming together without proselytizing and agreeing to work with local partners overseas at the invitation of others like what King Abdullah did for us and what he is doing for persecuted religious minorities. That is the best of our faith traditions.

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