Friday, September 20, 2013

An Open Letter to Suzan Johnson-Cook, U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom

Suzan Johnson-Cook
Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom
September 20, 2013

Madam Ambassador,

After two and a half years of constant, nihilistic, ever-worsening bloodshed in Syria, I’ve become somewhat desensitized to bad news.  There’s a massacre in Hatla?  Can’t have been worse than the Baniyas massacre – or the Houla massacre or the Daraya massacre or the Aleppo massacre.  Maalula, a city continuously inhabited by Christians since the time of St. Paul, whose people still speak Aramaic, is religiously cleansed by al Qaeda?  It was bound to happen sometime.

Every once in a while though, a particularly horrible Syria story breaks through the fog and socks me right in the gut, sending me back into the tailspin of despair I felt when I had to leave all my friends in Damascus behind, and the first time a car bomb went off in the neighborhood I used to live in, and the first time a Syrian friend of mine had to flee their home, and the first time I heard Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb’s name.  

This week, you were that story.

At a meeting of NGOs in New York, a representative from the American Jewish Committee asked you, “What is the U.S. doing to protect minority religious groups in Syria and how is this being factored into potential U.S. military operations?” 

You – the U.S.’s ambassador for international religious freedom, whose ONLY job is to try to blunt the horror of religious persecution and cleansing in our tortured world – said:

 “Syria is very much in the news right now, and right now we’re not free to comment on what’s happening in Syria.  Right now we will refer that to the White House and we respect our marching orders from the White House to comment on that. But thank you for the question.”

For the love of God, Ambassador.

I won’t recite to you the whole list of scores of documented vicious attacks on religious minorities in Syria – the systematic kidnappings of Druze in Suweida, the religious cleansing of Christians from Homs, Qusayr, al-Thawra, Raqqa, Maalula and much of the northeast, the burning of Shia mosques, the huge car bombings in Christian and Alawite neighborhoods in Damascus.  I have to assume you know all this already.  Don’t tell me you don’t – you’ll just make me more depressed.

At any rate, I don’t expect you to take it from me.

Take it from these people:

Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect:  “Growing numbers of foreign Sunni extremist fighters are battling not just to rid Syria of Mr. Assad, but to religiously cleanse it.”

The Most Reverend Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury: “It’s absolutely clear that Christians in Syria are being persecuted.”

Neil Hicks, International Policy Advisor, Human Rights First: “What has happened in Iraq and Syria is de facto ethnic cleansing of Christians.”

Bishop Nicholas Samra, head of the Melkite Catholic Church in the United States: “We’re seeing what looks like an extermination of Christianity [in Syria].”

Nina Shea, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom:  “Syrian Christians are being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign.”
Ambassador Peter W. Galbraith: “The next genocide in the world will likely be against the Alawites in Syria.”

If you have nothing to say, you are increasingly isolated in that regard.  You aren’t totally alone, of course.  The entire presidential administration you’re a part of seems to inhabit a bizzaro world where the evil regime and the moderates are the only players in Syria, where the religious tensions that have defined every Middle Eastern land for 1,400 years are a non-issue.

But you aren’t them.  You are the religious freedom ambassador, and I can only assume you agreed to take this job because, on some level, religious freedom matters to you.

If the White House won’t let you, the religious freedom ambassador, speak about the single most egregious, most urgent crisis of religious persecution in the world today, then they aren’t letting you do your job.  And if you continue to pretend you ARE doing your job, you are letting them use you.

I say this without malice, and without anger: please resign.

With respect,
Joel Veldkamp