Recalling martyrs, group looks for ways to protect Middle East Christians

CNS photo/Ali Abbas, EPA
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WASHINGTON — It's becoming increasingly difficult for Chicagoan Mary Jennett to see and hear daily about the hardship and persecution Christians face, especially in the Middle East.

So Jennett decided to do something about it by attending a Sept. 7-9 convention in Washington organized by In Defense of Christians, a group trying to find solutions to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the preservation of Christianity in areas of conflict around the world.

"They're part of our faith family," Jennett said of the Christians facing persecution.

Jennett and about 50 others attended an evening prayer service Sept. 7 at Washington's Holy Rosary Church, where organizers brought in roses symbolizing the life of Christian martyrs killed in the Middle East. They were followed by lighted candles carried in by various faith leaders.

Father Andre Mahanna, who guided the ecumenical prayer service, said the leaders wanted to remind those who attended the event that even after pain and sadness, light can enter into the world.

The service was intended to set a tone of hope for those attending the convention titled "Beyond Genocide: Preserving Christianity in the Middle East." The prayer service also marked one of the first public appearances by Archbishop Christophe Pierre as the apostolic nuncio to the United States.

During a panel discussion earlier in the day, organizers said they would use their time in Washington to talk to lawmakers and policymakers who deal in Middle East affairs about a plan to establish a province, or safe zone, for indigenous Christians and other minorities of the Ninevah Plain region in Iraq. They also want to ask for U.S. support for security and stability in Lebanon, and relief from the Syrian refugee crisis. They also planned to ask elected officials to encourage Egypt to rebuild and construct churches and bring "Turkey to account for its genocide against Armenians and Assyrians."

Kirsten Evans, In Defense of Christians executive director, said growth in the organization, which now has 11 chapters around the country, has been fueled by Christians trying to find a way to help.

"They don't know what to do, but they want to do something," Evans said.

The group offers resources to raise awareness within parishes and in interested local communities, provides education and promotes ecumenical outreach, Evans said.

Bishop Gregory J. Mansour of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Maronite Diocese of St. Maron, said the convention allowed for a meeting of various Christians and others working on humanitarian efforts to help those who are suffering from violence in the Middle East.

He said it was particularly important to follow up with international courts to send a message that "genocide is not acceptable; we need to follow up legally on this manner as well keep it on the radar." Bishop Mansour also emphasized that those gathered for the conference are not against Islam.

"I would not be part of a group that is anti-Islam because they suffer from this as well," he said.

In Defense of Christians, he said, is not a group of Democrats or Republicans, of pro-Saudi or pro-Iranian supporters. Instead, he said, the group, has worked toward unity, such as the ecumenical prayer service that kicked off the conference and that allowed for participation of members of the East and West church traditions.

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan's King Abdullah II told a visiting delegation from the Middle East Council of Churches that his country has become a model for coexistence, fraternity and moderation in the Middle East.

"Christians in the Arab world are an integral part of the Arab social fabric, and protecting their rights is a duty of all," the Muslim monarch told the delegation Sept. 7.

King Abdullah said Arabs, whether Muslims or Christians, face similar challenges in the Mideast, caught up in sectarian and other conflicts, adding that they also share a responsibility in addressing these challenges.

The Christian leaders met with the king during the three-day 11th General Assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches in Amman. In a final statement issued Sept. 8, the Christian leaders said they appreciated initiatives of Muslim institutions and leaders in the region "who have engaged in the rejection of extremism and violence, have affirmed the respect for diversity and recognized the role of Christians as an original and fundamental factor of the Arab civilization and of the entire region." They said they hoped such attitudes "translate into practical steps," especially in educational curricula, "in order to move to a new level of partnership and cooperation."

They also said they would set up a delegation to visit Mideast civic and religious leaders, including leaders of major institutions such as Sunni scholars al-Azhar University and the Shiites in Qom, Iran, with the aim of together seeking solutions that promote the continuity of the Christian presence in the region.

Their statement called for intervention to stop the war in Syria and asked nations and groups not to supply weapons to terrorist groups. It asked that Iraqis uprooted by the Islamic State in 2014 be allowed to return to their homes in safety and urged a speedy election for a Lebanese president, a post that has been vacant for more than two years. It asked for the international community, including Arab countries, to help displaced persons and refugees. It also reiterated support for the Palestinian people and their right to statehood.

The Christian leaders appealed for the release of all hostages, especially the two Orthodox archbishops of Aleppo, kidnapped in 2013 in northern Syria while on a humanitarian mission.

Address the meeting on its opening day, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan said the current situation requires effective dialogue, moderation and mercy as well as cooperation with "our Muslim brothers in the face of all attempts to uproot us from our land."

"Our message to our Muslim brothers is that we will continue, in spite of all the challenges, in the common life and in living together," he said. 

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