Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
The world faces a “panhuman crisis” from Islamist fundamentalists, and the intensifying persecution of Christians by terrorists such as the Islamic State demand a unified world response, according to one of the Middle East patriarchs attending the In Defense of Christians conference now underway here in Washington.
I spoke yesterday with His Holiness Aram I, the Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, on the second day of the In Defense of Christians conference. The three-day conference has drawn a vast array of Middle Eastern bishops together with representatives of Pope Francis and the Church in the United States, to emphasize the need to educate and encourage solidarity with the Christians of the Middle East, and work for the preservation of their 2,000-year-old presence in Middle Eastern countries.
In his remarks, the Armenian Apostolic His Holiness speaks of the need for Muslim moderates to join their voices in solidarity with Christians, but also warns against the international community jumping to quick solutions for a deep-seated crisis.
The persecution of Christians has brought you and your brother patriarchs and bishops together — Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian, etc. — to this meeting in D.C. How would you describe it?
It is historic — in the sense that it is the first time we are meeting outside the Middle East to discuss the situation pertaining to the Middle East and the Christian presence. But of course, we have to make it historic.
We have to initiate the kind of messaging, the kind of process by which this meeting becomes historic.
People are asking about the Muslim moderates? Do more Muslims need to speak out?
Really, it is expected that Muslim moderates, religious and political leaders and centers, speak out clearly on this matter. Because this is not a Christian crisis in the strict sense of the world. This is not a Muslim crisis. This is a human crisis, this is a panhuman crisis touching the international community. It has different aspects, different, dimensions, different manifestations, and as such we need to develop a global strategy to address this crisis.
What are some of the practical solutions you and the other patriarchs are calling for?
This is not an easy situation and I don’t have an easy solution. I think we should not look at it in a superficial way. You see this crisis has its deep layers and different forms and manifestations. Therefore easy solutions could be counterproductive.
I would suggest that we talk of a global strategy with a step-by-step process which has its short-term and long-term dimension. It’s very complicated, therefore we have to move forward step by step, taking into consideration political, economic and even military factors and measures.
We should know how to use these or that measures — in combination — to have an effective engagement.
What role would you like the international community to play?
This is a global issue and the international community needs to discuss this realistically and seriously. I don’t want to see proposals competing with each other. We have to discuss this together.
What can Christians here in the West do to help their Christian brothers and sisters in the East?
They have to help the Christians in different ways: by expressing their fellowship, their brotherhood, their concern, and their solidarity. That is important. They have to send the clear message that the Christians are not alone.