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Clerics sit next to a screen showing Dutch priest Frans van der Lugt during a remembrance ceremony for the dead priest in the Sint Nicolaasbasiliek in Amsterdam, on April 11, 2014. (REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images)

Action Is Being Taken to Help Christians in the Middle East

Nina Shea

On the morning of April 7, Dutch Jesuit priest Frans Van Der Lugt was most likely in meditation, as was his custom, when gunmen burst into his monastery in the old part of the Syrian town of Homs. They grabbed the 75-year-old clergyman, beat him, dragged him outside and shot him twice in the head. The assassins were probably jihadis who then controlled Homs.

The priest was unarmed and for 50 years had come to be widely beloved for his humanitarian work. Was he murdered, then, simply as an “infidel”, one of only a dozen or so Christians remaining there, or because of his, and Syria’s Christians’, refusal to fight in the conflict, or because of his long dedication to inter-religious dialogue, anathema to extremists? What is certain, he did not die a by-stander, caught in the cross fire of Syria’s civil war. He was singled out for his Christianity.

Syria’s two million Christians follow some ten different faith traditions and no group has been spared persecution. For three years, they have seen their ancient churches deliberately destroyed in Maaloula and many other places, and many clergy and laypeople targeted for death, kidnapping, and intimidation. Two Orthodox bishops from Aleppo have been hostages for a year. In Raqqa, another renowned Jesuit and man of peace was abducted and reportedly executed last July. This year, 20 of Raqqa’s remaining Christian leaders were forced to sign a so-called dhimmi contract, agreeing to pay “protection” money, and submit to medieval Muslim blasphemy and social codes. Recently, extremists stopped and searched a bus, and from its group of largely Kurdish passengers separated out and beheaded two Armenian Christians. These are just a few examples.

Those of us who follow religious freedom issues are deeply alarmed. We have seen similar patterns of targeted violence by Islamic extremists against Iraq’s Christians over the last decade, with devastating results, and, last August, the worst single attack in 700 years hit Egypt’s Coptic churches. UK’s Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos stressed to Congress that the attacks by “radical elements” are not merely aimed at individuals, but “the Christian and minority presence in its entirety”. Such persecution, coming on top of conflict and political turmoil that Muslims and Christians, alike, are suffering, has helped spur an exodus of many thousands of Christians from Syria, Iraq and Egypt — today home to the vast majority of indigenous Middle Eastern Christians. If this wave of persecution continues, the indigenous Christian communities may soon be exiled from the region of Christianity’s birth.

The West has largely ignored this crisis. Though promoting religious freedom is a key objective of US foreign policy and the tolerance of religious minorities, as President Obama emphasises, is a national security concern, two successive administrations, Republican and Democratic, have given short shrift to these Christians’ unique plight. Moreover, the Western Christian response has been noticeably muted. Last December in Rome, at a conference sponsored by two private American Christian universities, Iraq’s Catholic Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako spoke searing words: “We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West?”

Soon after, Prince Charles, visiting London’s Eastern churches with Jordan’s Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed, a brave Muslim champion of moderation, said: “We cannot ignore the fact that Christians in the Middle East are, increasingly, being deliberately targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants. Christianity was, literally, born in the Middle East and we must not forget our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters in Christ.”

In January, several of us agreed that an American Christian response was needed. We set to work on an ecumenical pledge of solidarity that could be taken up by the leaders of a majority of American churches. I joined with a group of drafters that included Maronite Bishop Gregory Mansour of Brooklyn, Dr Elizabeth Prodromou, a conflict resolution scholar and former Commissioner with whom I served on the independent US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Joop Koopman, who oversees communications for the Catholic pontifical agency Aid to the Church in Need USA, and Fr Nathanael Symeonides of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the USA. Our effort was in the tradition of other American ecumenical pledges, particularly one in 1996 by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) that helped lay the ground for institutionalising religious freedom within the State Department.

Christian Arab and Middle Eastern Churches Together (CAMECT) members, with close regional ties, advised us throughout. Revisions followed reviews by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the NAE, representing 45,000 local churches, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination. The draft was re-edited to reflect the concerns of the Catholic Bishops of the Holy Land and the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America – which warned against framing the Christians as “persecuted” and in need of “protection”.

In early May, the Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action on Behalf of Christians and Other Small Religious Communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria was finished. Signatories commit to call together their own congregations and communities “in sustained prayer, education and engagement in US foreign policy,” action points taken from an address of New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan. It urges three diplomatic and foreign and humanitarian aid steps. These were influenced by USCIRF’s work, and include a Congressional initiative for the appointment of a Special Envoy for Middle Eastern Christians and other minorities. It emphasises the need for greater American support for religious tolerance and freedom and for “equal rights of individual citizenship” for all.

The Pledge is a grassroots document, with input from many sources, prominent signers from diverse Churches, and with no institutional sponsor. It was released publicly on Capitol Hill on May 7 by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the co-sponsors of the Special Envoy bill and the co-chairs of the bipartisan Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus of the US House of Representatives. Thirteen Christian leaders spoke. Canon Andrew White, the British Anglican “Vicar of Baghdad”, was one. Patriarch Sako sent a message of support that was read aloud.

Spread by email, the Pledge garnered signatures from 200 Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders — including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, NAE chair Leith Anderson, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan, and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodios. Anglican, Methodist, Maronite, Melkite and Church of the East bishops and several mega-church evangelical pastors also signed, as did a bi-partisan mix of lay civic society leaders, intellectuals, and academic leaders.

The Pledge hopefully will bring greater moral, diplomatic and humanitarian help to the Middle East’s persecuted Christians. It has already refuted the charge that Christians in the West are indifferent to their suffering.

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