UN: Assad Regime Guilty of Extermination, Crimes against Humanity

NBC News describes a new report from the United Nations on crimes against humanity in Syria:

Thousands of civilians are being secretly imprisoned, raped, tortured and exterminated by Syria’s government as it wages a bloody civil war, a United Nations commission found Monday.

The U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria lifted the lid on what it called a systematic, country-wide pattern of prisoner abuse by President Bashar Assad’s regime — which it said amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The government’s crimes against prisoners included “extermination, murder … torture, imprisonment, enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts,” according to a report from the commission published Monday.

Tens of thousands of detainees have been arrested in what the commission described as a “countrywide pattern” of arbitrary detention over allegations such as supporting the opposition or being “insufficiently loyal” to the government.

While most prisoners are men, some women and children as young as seven years old have died in regime custody, the report added.

None of this is really news to anyone who has been following the Syrian civil war. But it does shine a spotlight on the costs of the Obama administration’s feckless response to these mass atrocities. And now Assad’s ally Russia has joined the regime in committing war crimes, killing thousands of civilians through the use of indiscriminate weapons and by directly targeting the innocent, mirroring Assad’s tactics. It is all part of a coordinated strategy to leave the two sets of mass murderers—the Assad regime and ISIS—as the only two groups left standing.

The Vatican continues to repeat its persistent calls for a negotiated settlement, while Assad, Iran, and Russia seek a military solution to the war. Unlike the threat of American strikes (in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons), Russia’s indiscriminate bombing has not prompted a special day of prayer or any other direct response from Pope Francis. Nor has the Vatican shown any signs of remorse for siding with the Assad-Putin-Iran-Hezbollah alliance in negotiations, a disgraceful decision, which is magnified with each new report of the alliance’s crimes against humanity. Even with the brutality of the Assad regime and its malignant intentions on full display, we still are not seeing real moral leadership from Pope Francis (or many other Catholic leaders, for that matter), such as denouncing those by name who are committing these crimes against humanity and demanding in the name of God that they stop slaughtering innocent people.

Does the Catholic Church believe that mass murderers, who murder, rape, torture, and disappear innocent civilians, are legitimate authorities? If the Church and its leaders sincerely believes in its teachings—that governments exist to serve the human person and that their legitimacy is intimately linked to this responsibility—then the answer should be clear: mass murderers belong behind bars, not in palaces or presidential suites. But we are hearing silence on the matter. And silence is complicity.


What is the Whole Life Movement?

At its core, the whole life movement is dedicated to protecting the life and dignity of all people. It is rooted in a belief in the innate dignity and worth of every single human being. Each human being is a person with innate and equal value, and human life is sacred. From these premises comes the belief that it is never permissible to intentionally and directly take an innocent life. But the wanton disregard for life present in unjust social structures and the dehumanization of others in ways short of direct killing are also incompatible with the whole life commitment to human life and dignity. Indirect threats to life, such as the absence of access to healthcare or food, are also fundamentally incompatible with the vision of government and society the whole life movement aims to achieve: the common good. Protecting the life of all people is intimately connected to creating conditions that reflect the dignity of every single person, conditions that allow each person to reach their full potential.

The whole life movement is not a rival of the pro-life movement. Instead, it seeks to purify the pro-life movement of its inconsistencies. A pro-life movement that ignores infant mortality rates, starvation, or the degradation of the environment simply does not deserve the label ‘pro-life.’ It becomes a mere euphemism for supporting laws that restrict access to abortion. It becomes detached from the understanding of human dignity and worth that should animate the movement. Only a whole life approach can make the pro-life movement authentically pro-life. Read More

A Radical Catholic Reviews Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis

The 2016 US Presidential campaign has included a semantic battle over the proper terminology to use when discussing members of ISIS and other violent extremists who share their totalitarian aspirations. Some Republican candidates believe the best term is “Radical Islam.” This terminology is problematic for a variety of reasons, but particularly because of its lack of clarity and the incorrect insinuation that being radical requires violence and brutality. It does not. The recent book Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis demonstrates this perfectly.

This aversion to the term ‘radical’ among candidates like Ted Cruz is not surprising. Many of these candidates embrace a watered-down, bourgeois form of Christianity that pales in comparison to authentic devotion to the way of Christ. Christianity calls for a countercultural presence. Those who are immersed in (and inseparable from) the mainstream culture are unlikely to embrace the radicalism of Christianity. And this may explain why they view radicalism so negatively.

Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis features essays from Catholics on both the left and the right. The diagnosis of problems facing contemporary American culture is the strongest feature of the book. Those who believe in Catholic social teaching cannot help but be disturbed by the flaws in our economic system, the dysfunction in American politics, and the poisonous discourse that makes achieving the common good even more difficult. And serious Catholics are also aware that the Catholic vision is not entirely compatible with the American project (or, more specifically, the classical liberalism that many see as the philosophy that shapes American values).

The ideas about how we might build stronger communities and live more fulfilling, joyful personal lives are also very valuable. And some of the authors are correct to note that the politicization of everything can act as an obstacle to such betterment and that genuine reform must begin on the personal level. A number of the essays provide avenues for living counterculturally without embracing a culture war mindset. Read More

Key Moments in President Obama’s Final State of the Union Speech

The President’s final State of the Union address included numerous insightful and inspiring passages, along with a few that were puzzling or problematic. Here are my reflections on some key moments in his address:

  1. We have to end the practice of drawing our congressional districts so that politicians can pick their voters, and not the other way around. We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections — and if our existing approach to campaign finance can’t pass muster in the courts, we need to work together to find a real solution. We’ve got to make voting easier, not harder, and modernize it for the way we live now. And over the course of this year, I intend to travel the country to push for reforms that do. But I can’t do these things on my own. Changes in our political process — in not just who gets elected but how they get elected — that will only happen when the American people demand it. It will depend on you. That’s what’s meant by a government of, by, and for the people.

One of the most important things President Obama can do as his time in office winds down is to bring the issue of political reform to the forefront of our political debates. We really do need a second Progressive Era to respond to this second Gilded Age. And that means that political reform, not just policy reform, is needed. Redistricting reform is critical for increasing the number of competitive districts and reversing the growing ideological purity of both parties. Campaign finance reform is even more essential. Plutocracies are not genuine democracies. Economic elites dominate both parties and diminish each party’s commitment to the common good. We need politicians who are public servants, not full-time fundraisers. Finally, Catholics recognize the moral imperative of political participation. Making voting easier, rather than more difficult, naturally flows from this commitment to participation.

  1. But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.

While it is critical that we fix the structure of our political system, our problems will persist if we lack the culture needed for a free democracy to flourish. We are living in a toxic political environment, filled with rancor and viciousness. Partisanship is so extreme that one can only draw the conclusion that many of our fellow Americans are willfully ignorant. People are ignoring facts and parroting absurd narratives, because they value their identity as a member of a political party or proponent of an ideology more than the truth. They trap themselves in bubbles that isolate themselves from genuine dialogue. This climate inhibits our ability to come together to confront the serious challenges we face and work toward the common good. Read More

Russia’s War Crimes in Syria

For years, Russia has backed Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of mass murder in Syria. Now, following its unjust invasion of Ukraine, Russia is directly participating in Assad’s attempt to reestablish his control through mass atrocities. Russia has used the existence of ISIS as a pretext for intervention, while often bombing mainstream rebels—an approach that mirrors Assad’s focus on defeating the rebels with the greatest commitment to pluralism, democracy, and basic rights (seeing them as a greater threat to his continued authoritarian rule than ISIS).

Russia is engaged in indiscriminate bombing, killing hundreds of civilians by striking schools, medical facilities, markets, and other non-military targets. This has only intensified the displacement of Syrian civilians, as they flee for their lives.

Human Rights Watch notes:

The military offensive that the Russian and Syrian government forces opened against armed groups opposed to the government on September 30, 2015, has included extensive use of cluster munitions – inherently indiscriminate and internationally banned weapons.

The use violates United Nations resolution 2139 of February 22, 2014, which demanded that all parties involved in Syria end “indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas,” Human Rights Watch said.

While the Vatican took a hard line against Western military intervention after Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians and sided with the Russia-Hezbollah-Iran-Assad alliance (rather than the democracies with a commitment to human rights) on negotiations, the current approach seems to be to remain silent about Russia’s crimes and make vague calls for a negotiated peace. If Pope Francis would like to provide moral leadership on Syria, he should continue to push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, but he should also explicitly denounce Russia’s crimes and Assad’s mass murder, just as he denounces the terrorism of ISIS, and he should be clear: no government is legitimate that relies on the mass murder of its people.

Francis should affirm the right of Syrians to participate in their government (and reject the bigoted anti-Sunni mentality held by some Church leaders that would deny them their most basic rights). Intensified violent repression and renewed tyranny will bring neither durable peace nor greater justice in Syria. The Vatican should set aside sectarian interests and affirm the human rights that belong to all people, an integral part of Catholic social teaching. The concrete impact of such genuine moral leadership is unclear (and may not make a significant difference in achieving a settlement that leads to free elections, minority protections, basic rights, etc.), but it would show the world and its people where the Church stands on human rights and human dignity—not just for Christians, but for every person on the planet.


Cardinal Seán: Christmas Joy is About Solidarity, Rejecting Ayn Rand Extreme Individualism

Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston delivered an outstanding message on joy, community, and solidarity this Christmas, encouraging us to pursue these and leave behind the selfishness, materialism, and hedonism of an extreme individualism that is truly poisonous:

“Christmas is about joy; so often, people do not know the difference between being happy, and having fun. For some people their whole life is one long pursuit of having fun. The joy of Christmas is not the product of successful shopping sprees, of fantasy or fairy tales, or addictions to entertainment, drugs, or alcohol….

Christmas joy is about discovering that life must be lived in solidarity. The Ayn Rand extreme individualism of our culture is poison, whose antidote is community and solidarity. Christmas joy is about discovering and building solidarity with our families, with our community, with the human beings on the planet, and with our creator.”


The Powerful Witness of Displaced and Persecuted Christians

During mass on Sunday, as I sat, stood, and kneeled in a stuffy balcony juggling my kids with my wife, I thought about those Christians whose concerns are far graver: those who are displaced from their homes this Advent and those who face religious persecution. It is easy to take for granted the simple ability to attend mass in our local community with our friends and family and to do so without fear. Many of us who are living in security are trying to think about how we can give gifts without giving in to consumerism, how we can experience the fun and joy of Christmas while focusing on its true meaning. Thinking about those who are practicing our faith in difficult circumstances is a good reminder of Christmas’ true meaning and the hope that Christmas inspires, especially for the poor and vulnerable, the persecuted and forgotten. We should, of course, think about what could be done to help these Christians and we should pray for them (along with all other people who are denied their basic human rights or driven from their homes), but we should also be inspired by their powerful witness and reminded of the true nature of God, which was revealed to the world when the Word became flesh. That moment changed all of history and each Christmas offers us an opportunity to celebrate this joyous moment and to respond in our own lives by bearing witness to the Good News.

Earlier today I ran across this video of some displaced Christians who are celebrating Christmas away from home this year:

You can also read my review of John Allen’s book on the persecution Christians face across the globe or some of the stories at Crux on the subject.