Participants at summit urge people to raise voices in support of Middle East Christians
Wednesday, September 24, 2014 4:50 AM
Not only Christians, but all people of good will should stand in solidarity with the suffering Christians of the Middle East, speakers said at the In Defense of Christians Inaugural Summit in Washington Sept. 9-11.
"We can be passive bystanders or active participants with this great effort to bring to the minds, eyes and hearts of everyone what is happening in the Middle East," said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, in welcoming participants to the gathering on Sept. 10 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel.
Cardinal Wuerl, as he has in several recent talks and writings, urged people to raise their voices in support of the suffering Christians in the Middle East, who are being persecuted by rampaging Islamic State militants in northern Iraq and Syria. Tens of thousands of Christians in that region have had to flee from their homes to escape being tortured or killed by the extremists.
At a press conference opening the summit the day before, Robert George - the McCormick professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University and the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom - said that such atrocities must not be greeted with silence.
"We must stand for all victims of religious persecution. It's a fundamental right of every human being to worship God according to his or her conscience," he said.
George wondered whether the comparative lack of attention to the crisis in the West was because of a mindset that Christians through the ages only have been persecutors, and not persecuted. That narrative, he said, is "false and pernicious," and he added that Christians in the West and all people of good will should not be complacent or indifferent as Christians in the Middle East are facing "genocidal evil" that includes beheadings, rapes and people being buried alive.
"Our voices should be raised loudly every day," George said. "Christians in the Middle East should have no doubt that their Christian brothers and sisters in the West stand with them."
His Holiness Aram I Keshishian, the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church and one of five Middle Eastern Christian patriarchs attending the conference, said "unity is a source of strength" for the suffering Christians of that region.
His Beatitude Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church of Antioch, said it was essential for people of different faiths to seek unity and to be able to worship freely and live side-by-side peacefully in the land that is "the cradle of Christianity, Islam and Judaism... (We should) refuse to let our countries be home to terrorism and violence." The Melkite patriarch also said that resolving the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is crucial to bringing lasting peace to the region.
Speaking of the horrific persecution being experienced by Christians, Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt, said, "We cannot just stand by... Advocate for them because they are your brothers and sisters in humanity."
During a Sept. 11 panel discussion at the conference, Tom Farr - the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, peace and World Affairs - said the most immediate need for the Christian refugees fleeing Islamic State militants is humanitarian assistance. Farr said he welcomed President Obama's speech the night before, calling for an international coalition to isolate and defeat the militants, but he said he wished that the president would have spoken more about what Christians are enduring there.
"The answer to the plight of Christians (there) in the long-term is stable self-government grounded in religious freedom," said Farr, who like several other speakers encouraged Muslim religious leaders to support religious freedom and to speak out against the evils being perpetrated by the Islamic State militants.
Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, encouraged people of all faiths and all political parties to stand united against religious persecution. "Religious freedom is inherent to human dignity," she said.
That point was echoed later by author Eric Metaxas, who said that people should speak out against religious persecution like that being experienced by Christians in the Middle East today, and also oppose threats to religious freedom like the HHS mandate that would force Catholic institutions to violate the Church's teachings by funding employee insurance coverage for abortion inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures.
"Silence in the face of evil is itself evil," said Metaxas, quoting the German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer - the subject of his recent book - who was executed in a concentration camp during World War II after opposing the Nazis' persecution of Jews. "Whenever we see persecution, we must speak out, not only when it touches us," the author said.
Also speaking at the summit was Nermien Riad, the director of the Coptic Orphans relief agency, who noted that Jesus lived in a time of violence and upheaval. "Rather than go to war, Christ chose to heal, educate and serve the most vulnerable. Christian institutions in the Middle East are following that same path" today," she said.
Riad noted that Christian schools, hospitals and NGOS (non-governmental service agencies) in that region teach the young, bring healing to the sick, and serve the poor of all faiths, and promote tolerance and social harmony. She noted that agencies like Catholic Relief Services help "the most vulnerable," and she asked, what better time is there to change hearts, "than when you're lifting people to their feet?"
The aid worker worried what the Middle East would be like without Christians and the institutions they sponsor. "Our shared mission is to keep our Christian schools, hospitals and NGOs running strong as a vital source for good," Riad said. "Let us continue Christ's example of healing, educating and helping those in need. It will be good for Christians, good for our neighbors, and good for the homelands we love."
Sir Rateb Rabie, the president of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation, encouraged the IDC to include Palestinian Christian leaders at their next summit, saying they could describe how Palestinian Christians "are a natural bridge for peace" to Palestinian Muslims and to the Jewish people in Israel. "We are part of you. We are with you, and we are for peace and coexistence with Muslims and Jews," he said.
Speaking about Palestinian Christians, Rabie said, "We were the first followers of Jesus Christ." THE HCEF funds educational programs and job opportunities for Christians in the Holy Land, and the group is sponsoring its 16th international conference in Washington on Oct. 17-18 (For information, go to www.hcef.org).
Speaking on another panel at the summit meeting, Philip Salem, the director of the Cancer Research Program at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston, said hearts need to be changed for true peace to come to the Middle East. "Land can be liberated by military power, but the mind can't be liberated by force," he said. "We need a different strategy. We need to liberate the minds of people through education."
Edward Clancy, the director of outreach and evangelization for Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic agency that recently pledged $1 million to help persecuted Christians in Iraq and Syria, urged people to pray, offer support and raise awareness on behalf of suffering Christians in the Middle East. "Christianity might disappear from the place of its birth," he warned.
Nabil Costa, a member of the Supreme Council for Evangelicals in Syria and Lebanon, said it was vital for Christians to remain in the Holy Land, to spread peace, hope and reconciliation.
Michael La Civita, the chief communications officer for the Catholic Near East Welfare Agency, an agency of the Holy See serving that region, said that Christians in the Middle East, by their presence and by their schools, hospitals and social agencies, continue to plant "seeds of hope" there.
At the summit's conclusion, Andrew Doran, the executive director of In Defense of Christians, said his Washington-based group would advocate for Christians in the Middle East. "The Middle East is the spiritual homeland for more than 2 billion people worldwide. It is the land where Jesus of Nazareth walked among us, and where millions of Christians live still," he said.