New York City – Activists are questioning comments by US Vice President Mike Pence who recently warned that Christians around the world face “genocide” at the hands of ISIL.
Speaking at the first-ever World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington, DC, last week, Pence described the Christian faith as “under siege”, stating an estimated 215 million Christians face mistreatment in more than 100 countries.
“The reality is, across the wider world, the Christian faith is under siege. Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ,” Pence told the audience.
Christianity, the world’s largest religion, has an estimated 2.2 billion followers worldwide. Yet Pence reserved his strongest words at the summit for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group.
“I believe ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide against people of the Christian faith, and it is time the world called it by name,” said Pence.
Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a New York-based policy institute, questioned Pence’s choice of words.
“You have to be so careful with the genocide word,” said Adams. “This is not just a word to throw around because it serves political advantage.”
Adams did agree there have been “mass atrocities” committed against Christians in Iraq, but added in relation to genocide the situation was more complicated.
“We were very careful when we came out and said that we thought that there had been a genocide committed against the Yazidis, that was based on investigation, on argument, on deliberation,” he said.
The Yazidis are an ethnic and religious minority that has been targeted by ISIL in Iraq. As many as 1,500 Yazidi women and girls are estimated to be enslaved by the armed group.
“Where is [Pence’s] passionate speech for the Yazidis”, or Shia Muslims or Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – “one of the most persecuted religious minority groups in the world?” asked Adams.
Each of the analysts and Christian faith leaders that Al Jazeera spoke to for this article agreed that Christians face significant persecution, particularly in contexts where they are the minority. However, they all also highlighted persecution suffered by other religious groups and ethnic minorities.
Fadi Hallisso – a Syrian and former Jesuit whose charity Basmeh & Zaitouneh helps Syrian refugees in Turkey – told Al Jazeera while he agreed that Christians in Syria were suffering, he did not think it was particularly helpful to portray them as “a special category of victims in the Middle East or in Syria”.
“Of course because Christians are a minority in Syria or in Iraq, they would be hit harder by the catastrophe,” said Hallisso. “But are they the only ones suffering? I think in the current situation, all of us are suffering.”
The World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians was useful in that it helped to raise awareness about the hardships suffered by Christians, especially Christian minorities, Peter Prove, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs at the World Council of Churches, told Al Jazeera.
However, Prove also said some of the numbers used by Pence “may be questionable”.
“We know numerically that Muslims have been by far the greater victims of Islamic extremism,” he said.
Last Saturday, Donald Trump was introduced at Liberty University as the US president who “bombed those in the Middle East who were persecuting and killing Christians”.
Some of the Trump administration’s policy decisions could be interpreted as specifically responding to concerns of persecution or discrimination from Christian supporters.
For example, the recent presidential religious liberty executive order followed on from a survey that found 57 percent of white Christian evangelicals said they believe Christians face “a lot of discrimination” in the United States, compared to only 44 percent who believe Muslims face “a lot of discrimination”.
The survey took place in February following the controversial travel ban that targeted Muslim-majority countries.
Pence took care at the summit to note that the Trump administration is concerned with protecting all people who suffer because of their religion. However, Adams questioned the administration’s commitment to these words.
“It’s deeply contradictory and hypocritical for a government that proposes a Muslim ban to talk about promoting religious freedom and talk about protecting people from religious persecution in the world,” he said.
Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter: @LyndalRowlands