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Middle East Christians need ‘advocacy’

WASHINGTON (BP) — The church and the government of the United States should act in behalf of beleaguered, often forgotten Christians in the Middle East, a broad coalition of religious and other leaders says.

Led by two members of Congress, representatives of the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox communities united Wednesday (May 7) in Washington to release a statement in support of Christians and other religious minorities in three countries: Egypt, Iraq and Syria.

The “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action” urges American congregations to pray for, become educated about and engage the federal government regarding the plight of Christians in these countries. It also calls for the U.S. government to revise its foreign policy to help protect Christian communities from the continuing threat to their existence.

Extremist Islamic groups in Egypt, Iraq and Syria — the Middle Eastern countries with the largest Christian populations remaining — have produced “an existential threat” to the church in those lands, according to the document. “The current trajectory, marked by political violence and, in the cases of Iraq and Syria, a full-blown war, risks a Middle East largely emptied of the millennia-old presence of Christians,” the statement says.

The statement reports that Christians in those countries have suffered beheadings and other execution-style killings. They have been kidnapped. Christian girls have been abducted and coerced to convert to Islam and marry their Muslim captors. Church buildings have been destroyed.

The result has been a widespread exodus of Christians from lands rich with church history. One estimate says the Christian population of Iraq has dwindled from 1.5 million to about 200,000.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., has met with many persecuted Christians in these countries, he said at a news conference announcing the solidarity statement.

“The resounding theme that emerges is quite simply a plea for solidarity, an appeal for help,” said Wolf, a leading congressional advocate for international religious liberty. “Where is the West, they wonder?

“Today, I am heartened to say that these cries have been heard,” he said in introducing the pledge.

The statement’s signers “have made clear that they are not waiting for Washington to take action,” Wolf told reporters. “They recognize that unless the American church begins to champion this cause, the foreign policy establishment will hardly lead the way. They are committing to be their ‘brother’s keeper,’ whether in Nineveh, Cairo or Homs.”

Southern Baptist policy specialist Barrett Duke told reporters that Christians “can no longer sit by while our brothers and sisters in Christ and other peace-loving people of faith are subjected to such barbarism. I don’t know what else to call it except sheer barbarism.

“The United States government, the faith community and all people of peace should begin immediately to run to the defense of these special people who choose not to retaliate against their attackers,” said Duke, vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s my hope and prayer that today will be known as the day their relief began,” he said. “We must join together in prayer, advocacy, acts of mercy and grace from this day and onward until Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, faithful and faithless live together in the Middle East in peaceful harmony. We can and should do no less.”

Andrew White, chaplain of St. George Anglican Church in Baghdad, shepherds a church that has experienced much suffering.

“I used to say, ‘I’m not leaving you. Don’t you leave me,'” White said at the news conference regarding his church’s parishioners. “I can’t say that anymore, because I know if my loved ones stay, they might be killed. I know if my loved ones remain, the chance of them surviving is very little.

“I have been shot at. I have been kidnapped … I have had my church blown up and destroyed. I have had my [medical] clinic destroyed. And yet, we always come back. We always build it again immediately.

“Our biggest problem is we feel forgotten by the church [in the West] … Our biggest problem is that the church is not with us,” he said.

The statement calls for a special envoy from the U.S. government to help protect religious minorities in the Middle East. Wolf and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D.-Calif., who also spoke at the news conference, are lead sponsors for their parties of legislation to authorize the presidential appointment of such a diplomat. The House of Representatives passed their bill in both 2011 and 2013, most recently by a 402-22 vote in September. The Senate failed to vote on the measure either time.

ERLC President Russell D. Moore and Richard Pates of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) asked Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Lee of Utah in a March 4 letter to lift their hold on the bill. Their reported hold has prevented the opportunity for a floor vote on the Senate version — the Near East and South Central Asia Religious Freedom Act, S. 653 — under the chamber’s rules.

The “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action” also urges the Obama administration to institute a review to certify that U.S. foreign aid supports religious freedom and pluralism. In addition, the statement calls for the American government to provide assistance for refugees.

Among the nearly 190 signers so far to the pledge are Moore; R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters; Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Charles Chaput, Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia; Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family; Michael Dukakis, former governor of Massachusetts and Democratic presidential candidate in 1988; Robert George, professor at Princeton University and chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.; Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; Tony Hall, former Democratic congressman and ambassador; Kirsten Powers, columnist for The Daily Beast and a Fox News analyst; Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; and Ed Young, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Houston and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Moore was scheduled to speak at the news conference but was unable to travel to Washington because of illness.

The document is available at http://is.gd/KAGpQl.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).