Published February 17, 2016
George Weigel's weekly column The Catholic Difference
The Monuments Men was a disappointing movie, but one of its most chilling scenes sticks in my mind as an analogue to the appalling wickedness underway in the Middle East.
In the film, SS Colonel Wegner supervises the destruction of art works plundered by the Nazis: treasures intended for Hitler’s fantasized Fuehrer Museum in Linz, Austria. But as the Allies close in on Germany in 1945, Hitler decides that, if he and his goons can’t have these masterpieces, their rightful owners—and the future—won’t have them, either. So Wegner and an SS squad armed with flamethrowers incinerate painting after painting, including Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man. Colonel Wegner, we learn later, was an extermination camp superintendent before he got busy destroying paintings.
The Nazi destruction of stolen art was an act of gratuitous violence against Europe’s cultural heritage, undertaken in service to a demented ideology—the corollary, in the field of culture, of the far more wicked Nazi slaughter of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, the mentally ill, and all those who fell under the category of lebensunwertes Leben: “life unworthy of life.” Similarly gratuitous destruction of ancient cultural centers and artifacts is now underway wherever the black flag of the Islamic State, ISIS, is raised in Iraq and Syria. And so is another genocide, this time of Christians.
The jihadists of ISIS routinely tear the crosses and bells from Christian churches in areas under their control, even as they hammer Christian images and statues into dust, desecrate Christian tombs, and do everything possible to destroy the artifacts of a Christian civilization that dates back to the days of the apostles. But, as with the Nazis, even greater evils are visited upon people. In ISIS-controlled areas, Christians are murdered by beheading or crucifixion for refusing to convert to Islam. Rape, regarded as a religious benefice by maniacal barbarians who “pray” before and after violating their Christian victims, is a routine occurrence in these ISIS enclaves, from which Christians are also sold into slavery, including sex-slavery.
The most recent cultural outrage to come to light was Islamic State’s demolition of the vast stone monastery of St. Elijah in Mosul. As the indefatigable human rights campaigner Nina Shea wrote, the monastery, a house of Christian worship for a millennium and a half, was “reduced to rubble” by the “determined application of sledgehammers, bulldozers, and explosives.” But as Ms. Shea went on to note, the wanton destruction of a sacred place is also a metaphor for “the genocide of Iraq’s Christian people and their civilization.”
Martyrdom is a daily fact of life wherever the black flag of ISIS stains the Mesopotamian sky. Those Christians who can flee have done so. Yet they cannot take shelter in U.N.-run camps, where they are often targets of Muslim violence. And the U.S. State Department treats Iraqi Christians fleeing ISIS to autonomous Kurdistan as “internally displaced persons” who have no claim to resettlement. So the Iraqi Christians are stuck in ramshackle camps, stateless in fact if not in law, and increasingly desperate: for in Kurdistan they cannot legally work, drive, or open bank accounts. Which means they have, literally, no future.
Iraqi Christian leaders are pleading with western countries to accept their people along with their priests, so that these Christians can rebuild their lives and save their culture. Thus far, the West’s response has been craven and cruel: Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil has told concerned U.S. Catholics that many of his people who have filed for American visas have been disappointed by a system they think unjustly rewards Muslims who have been their oppressors, or who haven’t condemned anti-Christian persecution.
Which takes us back to the era of The Monuments Men. Then, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both declined to prioritize Jewish refugees from Nazism, for fear of offending anti-Semitic elements in the political coalitions they led. Today, western politicians seem to fear that naming the genocide of Christians for what it is, or treating Christian refugees as refugees, will be taken as a gesture of disrespect for Islam.
This is shameful. The shadow that their decisions in the 1930s and 1940s now cast over the historical reputations of Roosevelt and Churchill should stand as a warning to western political leaders today.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.