CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN
At right, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch, celebrates a Mass for peace at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Rite Church in Washington on Sept. 11, at the conclusion of the In Defense of Christians summit meeting in Washington, where religious and lay leaders gathered to promote awareness of and advocacy for the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians. Concelebrating the Mass, from left to right, were Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan of Antioch; and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN At right, Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch, celebrates a Mass for peace at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Rite Church in Washington on Sept. 11, at the conclusion of the In Defense of Christians summit meeting in Washington, where religious and lay leaders gathered to promote awareness of and advocacy for the suffering of Middle Eastern Christians. Concelebrating the Mass, from left to right, were Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan of Antioch; and Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.
United in the suffering of their people, five Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs from the Middle East participated in a panel discussion at a first-of-its-kind summit meeting in Washington on Sept. 11 and offered insights on what needs to be done to ensure the survival and future of Christianity in the Holy Land.

The patriarchs encouraged the world's Christians, and all people of good will, to stand in solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East, who have been enduring persecution and atrocities in the wake of rampaging Islamic State militants in northern Iraq and in Syria.

Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch and all the East, urged Christians to strengthen their bonds of unity with Christians of the Middle East, whom he noted have played an important role in the region for 2,000 years. He encouraged the international community to take steps, not to hasten the immigration of Christians from the Middle East, but to support development projects to help ensure their ongoing presence in the cradle of Christianity.

"The future is in the hands of those who sow seeds of hope in the hearts of young people and future generations," he said.

The panel of patriarchs was part of the Sept. 9-11 inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians, a new Washington-based group formed to promote awareness of the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and to advocate on their behalf to U.S. policymakers.

After the conference closed later that day, Cardinal Rai was the main celebrant at a Divine Liturgy at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Rite Church in Washington. Noting that he and the other patriarchs had met with President Obama that afternoon to discuss the plight of Christians in the Middle East, the cardinal said, "On the occasion of 9/11, we expressed our solidarity with the president and with the American people."

In his homily, Cardinal Rai noted that participants at the conference emphasized the need for solidarity with the suffering Christians of the Middle East, and also the need to support them with prayers and material assistance. The Christians in that region, he said, share the sufferings of Christ, but also the hope of his, and their, resurrection.

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, was a concelebrant at the Mass for peace along with other of the prelates who participated in the conference. "We stand with you. We are with you in solidarity that is unbreakable," said Cardinal Wuerl, who in recent addresses and writings has criticized how the world community, especially political leaders and the media, has reacted with silence to the suffering of Christians in the Middle East.

During the panel of patriarchs, His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, the Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, said, "Christians are not (just) looking for humanitarian aid. They are looking for humanitarian action, to save Christianity in the Middle East."

The Armenian patriarch said a comprehensive strategy is needed to defeat the extremism that "threatens the very survival of Christianity" in that region. "Democracy can become the bulwark against extremism," he said, noting that it is essential to promote human rights, pluralism and religious freedom for the people in those countries.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam, "share common roots, values and history" in the Middle East, and the people of those faiths must work in partnership and collaboration to ensure a future of peace and justice there, the Catholicos said.

Also during the panel discussion, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan called for Muslim leaders to issue a statement "to condemn the atrocities committed against Christians and other minorities" in the Middle East. He also called on "the family of nations" to support religious freedom, and the separation of church and state, in the region.

Earlier that morning, Patriarch Younan called for the international community to help find a solution that would allow thousands of Christian refugees to return to their homes in northern Iraq and Syria. "We have the right to live in our own land, the land of our ancestors for millennia... Our forefathers endured persecution and even martyrdom because they were faithful to the Lord Jesus," he said. "...We keep hope in the Lord, who repeated many times in the Bible, 'Don't be afraid.'"

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch echoed that point during the panel discussion, as he urged the international community "to help Christians stay in the homeland where our forefathers for two milliennia have witnessed to Christ." He urged Christians and Muslims to stand together against extremist groups like ISIS "who are hijacking Islam."

In a keynote address earlier that morning, Patriarch Aphrem, said there are not words to describe "what we are witnessing." He told of meeting a Syrian Christian father whose wife and two children had been murdered, and whose bodies were thrown down a well. The patriarch also described meeting a Christian boy among 50 families who had fled for their lives and taken refuge in a small, crowded church hall in the Kurdish region of Iraq. The boy opened his arms, saying, "We have no place!" Others were sleeping in tents, on the street or in parks, the patriarch said.

"Is there no place for Christians in the land of their ancestors?" asked Patriarch Aphrem, who noted that he and other religious leaders have written to the United Nations and the European Union seeking help.

During the patriarchs' panel, Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregorios III Laham of Antioch and all the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem, urged that a peaceful solution be found. "We call on America to be peacemakers, not war makers," he said. "...It's time for the world to realize that no one wins a war."

Patriarch Laham noted that he had visited Ground Zero some years ago, noting that site demonstrated the mystery of evil, but he added that Christians should be witnesses of the mystery of Christ's resurrection. He urged the people of the Middle East to work together for the future, just as they have lived and worked together side-by-side for centuries. "We Christians and Muslims ought to remain together to build a better world for our young generations," he said.

During opening remarks that morning, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt, decried the "persecution, genocide, religious and ethnic cleansing we're seeing today" in the Middle East, but he said that the worst outcome would be for Christians to respond with hate. Rather, Christians are called to reflect Christ's love and light amid that darkness, and to remain a reconciling presence in the region as they have for 2,000 years, he said. 

The Coptic bishop praised the summit gathering, saying, "We are not only in defense of Christians. We are in defense of Muslims. We are in defense of Jews. We are in defense of those who have no faith, of everyone. That is the message of this summit."

In opening remarks at the conference that morning, Metropolitan Joseph Zahlawi, the archbishop of New York and all of North America for the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, noted, "What began as an Arab spring has become a harsh winter of violence and extremism."

He noted that Christians in the region have lived there "since the very first proclamation of the Gospel by the Apostles almost 2,000 years ago." Now Christians, who early in the 20th century constituted about 20 percent of the population of the Middle East, are now only 5 percent of its people. Instead of the world facilitating a Christian exodus or exile from the region, the Christians there "wish to keep their homes and lands, and to be apostles of peace," the Orthodox archbishop said.

He urged decision makers to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis there. "Stop the violence. Don't destroy. (Instead) Rebuild those beautiful countries. May God help us be peacemakers," he said.