The United States can help Christians being persecuted in the Middle East by using foreign aid to modify behaviors in countries where persecution is rampant, educating U.S. diplomats about the issue in their assigned regions and asking for help from Arab-Americans, a panel of religious freedom researchers said Monday.
But in helping fight Christian persecution, the U.S. must not become a crutch or a larger target for those it's trying to protect, said Marwan Kreidie, a political science professor at Villanova University.
"You don't want to be 'the great white hope,'" said Mr. Kreidie, a coordinator for Villanova's Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. "The future of Middle Eastern Christians should be in the Middle East."
Mr. Kreidie was one of a three-member panel assembled by the Center for American Progress to discuss Christian persecution overseas and what can be done about it.
According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, millions of Christians in more than 100 countries are subjected to some form of persecution.
In terms of religious freedom, "I think the world is getting much worse," said Paul Marshall, a senior fellow with the Center for Religious Freedom.
Monday's panel discussion focused on:
• Iraq, where Christians are caught in the middle of increasing deadly violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
• Syria, whose civil war has placed Christians between mostly Sunni rebels (some of whom are al Qaeda-inspired militants) and the authoritarian regime of President Bashar Assad, who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
• Egypt, where Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have been attacked and killed frequently in the wake of the Arab Spring protests.
Mr. Marshall said the Middle East is bearing the largest share of the world's problems in Christian persecution because of the region's migrating minority populations, ongoing conflicts and sectarian ways of life.
Panel member Hishan Melham, the D.C. bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel, suggested that rather than Christian persecution, the issue should be addressed as one of human rights.
"Christians of the Arab world should fight for equal rights — not protection, not privileges," Mr. Melham said.
Such an approach could create a platform for the United States for imposing sanctions on aid for countries where persecution is a problem, he said.
"If it's going to help a given government, that should be one of the issues on the table," Mr. Melham said. "I don't want to separate Christian persecution from respect for human rights."
Western aid itself is an issue, Mr. Kreidie said, because it can benefit a targeted group of people even as it makes them vulnerable.
Missionaries and good schools are helpful in changing attitudes in countries where Christians are persecuted, Mr. Kreidie said, but then "we see [these countries] over and over again looking for the outside to help."
The U.S. also must balance providing aid with avoiding the appearance of pushing a Christian agenda.
"The U.S. tends to downplay what's happening to Christians," Mr. Marshall said, adding that being seen as an ally in the fight is an impression "you need to avoid."
He urged the State Department to spend more time educating its diplomats about Christian persecution amid the cultures of their assigned countries and to meet with the leaders of the minority Christian communities.
Mr. Marshall also called for the State Department's long-vacant office of the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom to be filled.
Nongovernmental organizations, Mr. Kreidie said, can be a helpful alternative resource, but there is no reason the U.S. can't be a direct part of the aid, especially if it starts employing the assistance of Arab-Americans in its efforts.
"This is a community that wants to help," he said. "Arab-Americans open doors that nobody else does."
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