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Colorado Priest Hopes to Shape Trump’s Mideast Policy
Recently appointed as a special envoy to U.S. clerics, Lebanon native Father Andre Mahanna believes the new presidency can advance peace by helping Christian communities.
By Wayne Laugesen
Editor’s Note: Father Andre Mahanna is scheduled to be interviewed on EWTN News Nightly on Jan. 19 at 6pm Eastern.
DENVER — Achieving Middle-East peace has been an elusive goal of nearly every American president for several decades, and a Colorado priest believes the Trump administration could achieve it by salvaging Christian communities throughout the region.
Father Andre Mahanna grew up in Lebanon, as a Catholic immersed in a complex interfaith and often hostile culture. He speaks six languages and has recently been appointed by the Apostolic Union of Clergy in Rome to serve as a special envoy to clerics in the United States, with a specific mission of raising awareness on the status of the Christian Middle East.
Father Mahanna says a very small percentage of Americans understand Christians are slaughtered each year in numbers greater than any other religious, ethnic or racial demographic. Throughout the Middle East, Christian churches have been bombed to rubble.
“We do not want to be accountable for doing nothing about the worst global persecution against the Church and Americans not knowing about it,” Father Mahanna implored in Denver Jan. 12, addressing a Legatus gathering of influential Catholic executives. “When God asks, ‘Where were you when my sons and daughters were being slaughtered?’ you don’t want to tell him, ‘I was doing business,’ or ‘I was eating,’ or ‘I was looking at iPhone messages.’ This destruction of the Christian Middle East is the gate to destroy the United States of America.”
The Center for the Study of Global Christianity reports 90,000 Christians have been killed for their beliefs each year for the past decade.
And a September 2016 proposal by Florida-based Ave Maria School of Law to create a legal and academic organization to address worldwide Christian persecution says Christians are run from their homes, “tortured, raped, trafficked, kidnapped and brutally killed” for their religion in what has become “a national security threat” to the United States.
The Islamic State group (ISIS) targeted a nightclub in Istanbul Jan. 1 to kill Christians celebrating “a pagan feast.” At least 39 were killed. Islamic terrorists bombed a park in Pakistan last year to target Christians celebrating Easter, killing at least 74. Islamic terrorists attacked a Catholic church in France last summer and slit the throat of a priest.
Less publicized atrocities against Christians are carried out each day throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and Father Andre believes it’s a matter of time before violence escalates on American soil beyond the routine terror attacks by radicalized Muslim Americans.
The pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in suburban Denver and founder of St. Rafka’s Mission of Hope and Mercy to Save Christian Middle East, Father Mahanna grew up along the western border of Syria. He escaped religious persecution by living in caves with his family. At age 12, he entered the monastery and received an education in France to become a priest. In 1999, at age 23, he came to shepherd Lebanese Catholics in Los Angeles and eventually became a naturalized American citizen.
“Our interest in the Middle East should not just be oil and resources,” said Father Mahanna, whose church is in the Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon. “In Africa and all over the world, our foreign policy should also be anthropological. We should save humanity when we can.”
Connecting With Trump
Father Mahanna connected with Donald Trump when he was invited to give invocations at several visits the president-elect and vice president-elect made to Colorado, a battleground state, during the campaign. He discussed his vision for a better Middle-East policy with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and hopes to discuss it with State Department officials after President-elect Trump takes the Oval Office Jan. 20. He was invited by Trump’s inaugural committee to the Jan. 20 inauguration and plans to attend.
“He believes President Trump can be a voice for Christians who are being persecuted,” said Patrick Davis, former political director of the Republican National Senatorial Committee, a Catholic and a member of Trump’s inaugural committee. “Father Andre has deep personal experience with the Middle East, and he believes he can help President Trump be a force to help Christians throughout the region.”
Trump and Father Mahanna are not close, but they aren’t strangers. After speaking in Denver Oct. 5, candidate Trump turned to the Maronite priest and signaled to him with hand gestures to indicate that he is listening.
“At a rally in Greeley (Colorado), Donald Trump said, ‘Does everyone here know Father Andre?’ The whole crowd cheered,” Davis said. “So, yes, there is a connection. I think it’s a message he’ll be able to get to the Trump administration, including officials involved in foreign affairs and at the State Department. There is a serious effort to make religious liberty a priority in the Trump administration, domestically and abroad, and Father Andre could contribute to that.”
Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan hosted Father Mahanna on a radio show to discuss Middle-East turmoil and his hopes for the government’s future policy toward the region.
“He painted a very persuasive picture, mainly about how our government has not been helping the refugees there nearly in the way it could or should,” Bishop Sheridan told the Register. “He is very sincere and knowledgeable about the whole big picture.”
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, agrees with Father Mahanna’s concerns about U.S. policy toward Middle-East Christians.
“It is outrageous what we are allowing to happen in the Middle East,” Lamborn told the Register. “We have no measures in place to give Christians relief through immigration and resettlement in the U.S. There is no effort being made to contact minorities in refugee camps. Someone like Father Andre, with a personal connection, is absolutely someone the Trump administration should rely on for advice.”
Father Mahanna said helping victims — whether Christians, Muslims or other minorities in the Middle East — will be essential to reducing or ending terror attacks on American soil and throughout Europe.
“If things do not change, I can see us going into a war between religions — a war between East and West. Nobody will be safe.”
He also has a message of hope: “Christians are a treasure in the Middle East. They are capable of maintaining the peace with Muslims. They are capable of helping Muslims understand the religious value of Israel. They are capable of forgiving, pardoning and rebuilding their countries.”
Father Mahanna added, “This administration should have an interest in asking Christians to assist them in how to better understand the modern Muslim world.”
‘We Must Prioritize Christians’
John Klink, a former special adviser to the George W. Bush administration on United Nations delegations as well as a Holy See delegate to numerous U.N. meetings, says Father Mahanna is not exaggerating.
“I share his concern,” said Klink, who is president emeritus of the International Catholic Migration Commission and who was appointed in September as a member of a Catholic advisory group for Trump. “Christians are the liquid between the joints, which allows other cultures to not have friction in that region, because they are a peace-loving people. If we are to defend human rights, we must prioritize Christians. We are talking about the land of Christ’s birth.
“And remember, this is the land where St. Paul was converted. He was a terrorist going after Christians. It was our Lord who made sure it did not happen, and we have the opportunity to do the same.”
Klink also quotes a member of the British House of Lords who, following a recent trip to Iraq, called Middle-East Christians the “new Jews.”
Given the chance, Father Mahanna would implore the Trump administration to create a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa. Doing so, he believes, could help shift a foreign policy that only helps Christians try to escape persecution, at best. He would advise an emphasis on helping Christians remain in a region that’s home to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
His view comports with a statement titled, “Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples” posted on the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “As Americans, we should cherish and celebrate the contributions of immigrants and their cultures; however, we should work to make it unnecessary for people to leave their own land,” the document states.
“The mission of the envoy would be to maintain relationships with all religious leaders in that area of the world,” Father Mahanna said. “Religious leaders know the true concerns of their people, and they are the source for the true revolutions of their people. What do we gain? We can soften the language of the sermons in mosques on Fridays. We can start making negotiations with Saudi Arabia to allow churches for Christian people who live and work in that country. It could be a bridge for cultural understanding, to create commonality.”
In addition to appointing an envoy to religious leaders in the Middle East, Father Mahanna said he believes Trump should embed, in every cabinet agency, a chaplain who is a specialist on Middle Eastern and North African cultures and religions.
He said the United States has neglected to promote deep and constant dialogue with leaders of religious groups in the region because it is counterintuitive to modern, secular American values. He said American culture has increasingly embraced a fictitious “wall of separation” between government and religion, which reduces religion’s role in political life in a way the Founding Fathers did not intend.
Klink concurs, saying the problem goes even deeper than secularization.
“Under the Obama administration particularly, there seems to be a reverse prejudice against the Christian minority in the Middle East,” Klink said. “There is this general attitude that Christians will be protected already if we do nothing, or very little.”
“The world perceives us as the only Christian nation remaining in the world, yet we’re still battling internally as to whether we are a Christian nation,” Father Mahanna explained. “The loss of our Christian identity allows the murder of these people. It allows the social injustice of a refugee influx that consists of almost no Christians. Our growing secularism weakens us as the only Christian nation that can stand up for Christians who are religious minorities in the rest of the world.”
He said he believes our culture’s growing embrace of secularism also makes the United States appear immoral to Islamic fundamentalists, who cannot communicate with a secular culture they do not understand.
“We don’t look at the human being from the natural moral and religious perspective anymore, and Muslims will never accept something like that,” Father Mahanna explained. “What we call terrorism, they see as punishment against infidels. That’s why our nation may not be safe unless we communicate with them like a morally righteous people.
“Morality is the common place where we can begin to communicate for peace between religious people and very secular people. Religious liberty is America’s greatest gift to the world.”
Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.
Father Andre Mahanna blogs at https://www.MercyandAmerica.com/.
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