In Congress and Elsewhere, IDC Mobilizes Against Genocide and for Religious Freedom

In Defense of Christians is fighting for a resolution recognizing the genocide under way against Christians in Iraq and Syria, as well as seeking new allies in promoting religious liberty.

This family of Iraqi Christians are refugees at a Catholic church in Amman, Jordan, in October 2014, waiting for a new life in another country, after being driven out of their homes in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq when ISIS gave them the choice to convert or die.
This family of Iraqi Christians are refugees at a Catholic church in Amman, Jordan, in October 2014, waiting for a new life in another country, after being driven out of their homes in the Nineveh Plain of Iraq when ISIS gave them the choice to convert or die. (photo: Peter Jesserer Smith)

WASHINGTON — Activists from across the U.S. gathered once again in Washington last week to call for the U.S. government to recognize the genocide of fellow Christians in the Middle East and to strategize about expanding awareness and solidarity among U.S. Christians.

In Defense of Christians (IDC) held its first leadership convention Sept. 9-11, after it first broke ground with its 2014 summit that brought together Middle-East diaspora Christians, Middle-East Christian leaders and their allies. For the past year, the IDC has expanded its non-partisan grassroots chapters across the country and overseas, in an effort to create a lobby with a unified agenda on behalf of the Middle East’s Christians.

During the week, IDC activists saw their work begin to pay off as six representatives — three Democrats and three Republicans — introduced a bipartisan resolution to Congress that would officially recognize the Christian genocide taking place in Syria and Iraq at the hands of the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS (or ISIL).

“I’m proud to say we have had a hand in the work,” Andrew Doran, special adviser to IDC, at the IDC gala on Friday. “We will work tirelessly, not just on Capitol Hill and in Washington, but in legislative bodies around the world.”

Doran said an Iraqi-Christian activist who had translated the genocide resolution into Arabic and Syriac — the language spoken by indigenous Christian peoples in the region — tearfully told him it would give hope to tens of thousands of Christians in Iraq who are still unable to return to their homes in the ISIS-occupied Nineveh Plain.

“I assured him this was only the first step, one of many, and the greatest part of our work was still before us.”

The genocide resolution is the first victory for IDC, as it moves forward to bring advocates for the defense of Middle-East Christians into a cohesive coalition with a unified agenda. The future was on the mind of many activists at the IDC event, who, mindful that the clock is ticking on Christianity in many parts of the Middle East, told the Register that they were already asking the question, “What’s next?”

 

Building Bridges

A number of panels highlighted the challenges and opportunities activists would have to take in order to advance their mission of advocating for the Middle East’s Christians and build partnerships in the U.S. political landscape.

In one panel, Assyrian-American activist Nehren Anweya, whose extended family in northern Iraq were driven out of their homeland of the Nineveh Plain, noted that the silence and inaction of the world to ISIS’ Christian persecution showed not only “Christianity is being lost, but humanity is being lost throughout the world.”

Anweya told attendees that she regularly receives pictures and updates from Christian refugees who are hanging onto their existence in places such as the Kurdistan region.

Anweya recounted that one refugee Christian who fled to Kurdistan sent her a picture of a child who had succumbed to disease.

“She said, ‘This is my dead son. I have two other children, and I do not want to die here. Where is your government? Do you not care about us anymore?’”

Participants raised the need to build bridges between the East and West and alliances between not only Eastern and Western Christians, but also between Christians and Muslims of goodwill whose religion has been harmed by ISIS and radical Islamist groups.

Bashar Ahmed Al-Kiki, president of the Nineveh Provincial Council, told attendees that refugees are relying heavily on the support they get from non-governmental organizations and the local churches, in coordination with the Kurdistan regional government. He said the Iraqi government is unsuccessful in providing services needed to address refugees’ psychological, social and economic needs, and its military does not have the ground capability to remove ISIS on its own.

He said there is hope if Iraq has assistance to rebuild communities “in a modern way” that can economically uplift people and create a new social fabric. He said a national interfaith reconciliation would be needed to heal divisions.

“This interfaith dialogue will be completed if the liberation of the Nineveh province is complete,” he said.

Father Nabil Haddad, founder and executive director of the Amman-based Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center, noted that in Jordan, where Christians make up less than 4% of the population, the Christians “continue to live in fraternity with their Muslim brothers and sisters.”

He added that the presence of Muslim leaders at IDC’s convention was emblematic of the dialogue exemplified in Jordan, highlighting the need to build “an alliance with our Muslim neighbors … an alliance of moderation and respect for human dignity.”

“We need this alliance, and we need it now,” the Melkite-Catholic priest said.

 

Overcoming Information Barriers

However, leaders at IDC panels discussed the need to overcome information barriers between West and East that make it difficult in the West to generate concern and solidarity for Middle-East Christians.

The challenge was outlined by Timothy Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, who noted that Christians are “more familiar with the early Christian martyrs than those martyred right now.” While they may know the name of Polycarp, they do not know the names of the 21 Coptic martyrs executed by ISIS in Libya.

“Pope Francis has noted the number of Christians being martyred today exceeds the number of Christians martyred during the days of the Roman Empire.”

A lack of knowledge, lack of fellowship and failure to pray together across religious lines are all aspects that Christians must remedy, according to Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project.

“We need to begin to know each other and speak well of each other,” he said, explaining that they need to rally others around the argument that what the Middle East is experiencing is “a crisis of religious freedom.”

 

Evangelical Outreach

Nermien Riad, executive director of Coptic Orphans, noted that many evangelical Protestants in the U.S. are unaware of the Christian presence in the Middle East — which she noted back at the turn of the 20th century was approximately 20% — and many of them consider Middle-Eastern Christians such as Copts as “unreached people” who have not been evangelized, despite their witness to Christ in the face of persecutions through the centuries.

Stan Holmes, president and CEO of CORE Fellowship, and Mark Toomey, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, shared that given the non-hierarchical structure of evangelical Protestantism, IDC activists need to reach out directly. They said U.S. evangelicals are best reached through conferences, Christian radio and building bridges to mega-church leaders through wealthy supporters. They outlined the need to collaborate with young evangelicals ready to take up a cause, too.

“We have to pray for some very highly visible champions of their cause,” Holmes said.

Activists had a number of proposals for concrete action, including making fellowship with Middle-Eastern Christians part of parish education, requesting the Middle-Eastern Christians be a regular part of the prayers of the faithful and encouraging theological student exchanges between Christian and Muslim programs, among other personal encounters.  

 

Holding the Cross

As IDC moves forward, one event stood out as deeply emblematic of its mission. A crucifix rescued from St. Joseph’s Church in Mosul by Christians fleeing ISIS was entrusted for safekeeping at the Friday evening gala to Thomas Farr in recognition of his religious-freedom work on behalf of the Middle East’s Christians.

Farr in an email told the Register that the gesture left him “deeply humbled.”

“The fact that it came from one of the churches desecrated and destroyed by ISIS, and was transported to the United States into the able hands of IDC, renders the cross at once a symbol of profound suffering and a magnificent example of the Christian virtue of hope,” he said.

“I am unworthy to receive it, but I accepted it for safekeeping until that day when the Christians of Iraq can return to Mosul and to the lands of their forefathers — perhaps, we pray God, as the vanguard of a new era of peace for that nation of sorrow.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.

 

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