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

A young Christian worshipper lights a candle during a 2015 Mass for peace at a church in Damascus, Syria. (CNS/EPA)

A young Christian worshipper lights a candle during a 2015 Mass for peace at a church in Damascus, Syria. (CNS/EPA)

By Rhina Guidos
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — 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.

He said Christians can “reach out to our Muslim brothers who are also victims of this, these criminal gangs, hiding behind Islamic, Quranic teachings. If we can appeal to them to say we want to reach out to you, we want to live in peace, we want you to live in peace. We want to prosecute the criminals and we want to be equal citizens with you.”

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.

“We have all the different divisions of Christianity from 431, 451, 1054 the Protestant Reformation and they’re all working together,” he said, referencing the different ecumenical councils, some which caused the early church to splinter.

Since it began in 2014, the group said it has garnered significant participation from members of Congress, human rights experts, international activists and academics. In 2014, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was booed and walked off the stage after telling the group to make the state of Israel their ally, a message not met well by some in the crowd. John Ashcroft, former U.S. attorney general, addressed the gathering’s third annual solidarity dinner.

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