WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday pledged his prayers and support for persecuted Christians around the globe, as well as members of other religions who are persecuted for their beliefs.
“Your faith inspires me, it humbles me, and it inspires all who are looking on today,” Pence said, speaking to persecuted Christians, including Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Iraq who survived a 2006 kidnapping and torture before ministering to Christian refugees fleeing ISIS in 2014.
“On behalf of the president of the United States, I say from my heart,” Pence continued, “we’re with you — we stand with you.”
The vice president on May 11 addressed the first annual World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, hosted by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Washington, D.C.
The summit brings together Christian leaders and groups from all over the world, including clerics of Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, current and former members of Congress, and representatives of Open Doors USA, Samaritan’s Purse and the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.
It was meant to bring attention to the plight of persecuted Christians and advocate for their rights in countries where they are targeted or harassed for their beliefs. In attendance were persecuted Christians from 130 countries.
Pence honored Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., and Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, from the stage on Thursday. He also honored Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk of the Russian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America.
“Each one of you bears witness to the power of truth to transform lives,” Pence told them.
The summit was held at a time when millions of Christians face violence, harassment and imprisonment in more than 100 countries. Pence noted recent Palm Sunday bombings of Coptic churches in Egypt and the destruction of churches in Iraq as examples.
“I believe that ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide against people of the Christian faith, and it is time the world called it by name,” he said.
Metropolitan Hilarion, chair of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, also addressed the summit.
The 21st century has brought a “new vast wave of persecution of Christians,” he said, “particularly severe in those countries where the dominant religion is Islam.”
“Yet the persecutors are not those moderate Muslims,” he added, “but extremists and terrorists hiding behind Islamic slogans and Islamic rhetoric.”
He called on “Islamic leaders throughout the world to condemn terrorism as something that contradicts the teachings of the Quran,” asking, “May this clear and precise condemnation resound from the lips” of leaders of countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
Metropolitan Hilarion also pointed to the Middle East and North Africa as areas where Christians are especially targeted and lie “in the pathway of the political and/or economic interests of those forces who are not afraid to use terrorists in pursuit of their goals, pretending that they are fighting for freedom and democracy.”
Inter-Christian and interreligious dialogue is key to the international community uniting to aid persecuted Christians, he insisted.
Pence pledged his prayers and the support of the Trump administration for persecuted Christians. And this support extends to persons of all faiths who are targeted because of their beliefs, he continued.
“Rest assured, in the Middle East, North Africa, anywhere terror strikes, America stands with those who are targeted and tormented for their belief, whether they are Christian, Yazidi, Shi’a, Sunni, or any other creed: The president’s commitment [is] to protecting people of faith,” he said.
“Adherents of other religions across the world have not been spared [persecution],” he added, “and we will speak and pray for them, as well. For as history attests, persecution of one faith is ultimately persecution of all faiths.”
However, his pledge comes as religious-freedom advocates have decried the absence of prominent administrative positions that promote religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy and advocate for persecuted religious minorities.
The Lantos Foundation recently sent a letter to President Trump asking him to “move swiftly” and nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, as well as a special envoy for monitoring and combating anti-Semitism. These two positions have remained vacant since Trump took office.
“The perilous state of religious freedom around the globe confirms the wisdom of America’s leaders in creating a legal framework for addressing these abuses and ensuring that our foreign policy remains focused on protecting and advancing these fundamental rights,” the foundation insisted, saying the ambassador and envoy positions “are absolutely critical components of the legal framework.”
President Obama did not nominate an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom until over a year after he took office. When his first ambassador, Suzan Johnson Cook, stepped down in 2013, no other ambassador was nominated until July 2014, with Rabbi David Saperstein serving the rest of Obama’s term.
Russia has also drawn serious concerns for its religious-freedom abuses.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom just noted, in its 2017 annual report, that, “in mainland Russia in 2016, new laws effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state, the Jehovah’s Witnesses stand on the verge of a nationwide ban, and innocent Muslims were tried on fabricated charges of terrorism and extremism.”
Russia’s restrictive laws were reportedly an impetus for the World Summit moving to Washington, D.C., Deseret News reported.
Rev. Franklin Graham noted on Thursday that the summit was originally set to be in Moscow, where Christians suffered greatly under communism. However, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association reportedly moved the location from Moscow to Washington, D.C., last year.