Sometimes good policy and good politics coincide. There is no better example of the intersection of the two than the plight of Christians in Arab countries.
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren writes: “Their share of the region’s population has plunged from 20% a century ago to less than 5% today and falling. In Egypt, 200,000 Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after beatings and massacres by Muslim extremist mobs. Since 2003, 70 Iraqi churches have been burned and nearly a thousand Christians killed in Baghdad alone, causing more than half of this million-member community to flee. Conversion to Christianity is a capital offense in Iran, where last month Pastor Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death. Saudi Arabia outlaws private Christian prayer.”
In this regard there is a bond between Christians and Jews (sometimes referenced as the shared experience of “Saturday people-Sunday people): “As 800,000 Jews were once expelled from Arab countries, so are Christians being forced from lands they’ve inhabited for centuries. The only place in the Middle East where Christians aren’t endangered but flourishing is Israel.”
Unfortunately, President Obama’s record on religious liberty has been one of indifference and sloth. As the Arab Spring turned frosty, the attacks on Christians have multiplied. The ability to tolerate and protect religious minorities is one key indicator of the progress of former phony republics toward genuine democracy, respect for the rule of law and individual rights. So far, there is little reason for optimism, and the Obama administration has failed to make clear that good relations with the United States depend in part on how these countries treat their religious minorities.
Mitt Romney should pay close attention. Unlike the president, he seems to have a strong interest in and support for democracy promotion. He’s noted the foolishness of the president’s lack of support for Iran’s Green Movement and chided him for cozying up to dictators. But a more specific and focused offensive on Obama’s woeful record on international religious freedom would certainly be in order.
And yes, this is a critical topic for American evangelicals, a group that Romney has had some difficulty in winning over. Phil Klein has noted, “Whenever Israel is mentioned in the political context, commentators normally focus on the impact of U.S. policy on the Jewish vote. In doing so, they overlook the fact that supporting Israel has become a core issue for many evangelicals, who make up a much larger portion of the electorate than Jewish voters. This reality could hold the key for Mitt Romney as he contemplates ways to secure and energize evangelical voters should he win the Republican nomination.”
Certainly Romney’s strong support or Israel may strike a chord with these voters; But just as important for evangelical, pro-Israel voters is the mistreatment of their religious brethren in the Middle East.
I’m not suggesting Romney take up the cause of Middle East Christians just to get votes. But this is one where doing the right thing, smart foreign policy and good electoral strategy all coincide. And that doesn’t happen very often.