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ICC Note: As the world deliberates on what to do in Syria, the protection for civilians and especially minorities should be at the top of the priority list. The United States Ambassador for International Religious Freedom has the opportunity to continually raise this issue in foreign policy discussions, and in the case of Syria it is a vital concern that the leadership needs to address.
By Emily Belz
9/11/2013 Syria (World) The humanitarian crisis in Syria for the country’s historic Christian population, as well as the religious refugees who have sought asylum there from other oppression in the Middle East, has grown acute over the last year. Church leaders and children of Christian families have been kidnapped. Iraqi Christians who fled to Syria have left for other neighboring countries.
On Sept. 5, al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebels overran a government roadblock to attack the historic Christian town of Maaloula, killing at least 10 and forcing residents to flee. Rebels also have targeted Christian communities in the north and elsewhere, insisting that Christians convert to Islam and destroying churches and residences.
But when on Monday someone asked the U.S. government official responsible for speaking on behalf of oppressed religious minorities about the crisis, she declined to comment.
U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook, who was visiting New York, spoke at length to representatives of nongovernmental organizations at the United Nations’ U.S. Mission on Monday. In the course of the discussion, a representative from the American Jewish Committee (AJC) asked Cook, according to a recording of the meeting: “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?”
Cook declined to comment.
“Syria is very much in the news right now, and right now we’re not free to comment on what’s happening in Syria,” she said. “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.”
I posed the AJC’s question to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent government commission.
“USCIRF is deeply concerned about the increasing sectarian nature of the conflict and mounting violations of freedom of religion or belief,” said Knox Thames, the director of policy and research there, who studies Syria. “The commission has urged the State Department to make protection of religious minorities and religious freedom for all Syrians a top priority.”

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