The third annual In Defense of Christians National Advocacy Convention, titled “Beyond Genocide: Preserving Christianity in the Middle East,” focused on what comes next in the wake a severe decline in the number of Christians in the Middle East. In 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq exceeded 1.5 million. Today there are less than 350,000.
At the opening press conference on Sept. 7, Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, the president of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, said she believed the threat to Christian communities in the Middle East, which includes a risk of annihilation and elimination, “is perhaps the great moral challenge of our time now” and “we are not meeting it.”
The convention, which was held Sept. 7-9 in Washington, happened six months after the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. State Department declared that ISIS was guilty of perpetrating genocide against Christians and other ethno-religious minorities in the Middle East.
Leading up to this designation, IDC and the Knights of Columbus presented Secretary of State John Kerry with a nearly 300-page report detailing the evidence they found that ISIS both intends to destroy Christians and is acting upon that intent. The executive summary of their report states that they “found stories of rape, kidnapping, forced conversions and murder, property confiscation and forced expulsion” of Christians in Iraq. The report was presented on March 9, and eight days later Secretary of State John Kerry declared the acts of violence committed by ISIS to be genocide.
In the house, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) co-sponsored a bipartisan resolution to declare the acts of violence as genocide. It passed on March 14 by a unanimous vote of 393-0.
During a panel on Sept. 9, Andrew Walther, the vice-president of communications and strategic planning for the Knights of Columbus, said the bipartisan cooperation “shows that some issues transcend politics.”
Following these events, this year’s convention sought to move forward by discussing issues related to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, such as: securing a just international resolution to Turkey’s unpunished genocide against Armenians and religious minorities; generating U.S. support for stability in Lebanon and relief from the Syrian refugee crisis; encouraging reform of the legal regulations regarding the rebuilding of churches in Egypt; and establishing a province for indigenous Christians and other religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain, a region of Iraq that lies to the north and east of Mosul.
“These issues are all tied to one another,” said Aram S. Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, during the press conference. “Progress on one reinforces progress on all. Justice for one represents a step toward justice for all.”
In January 2014, the Iraqi Cabinet of Ministers decided to turn the Nineveh Plain into a province. The area has been a long-time home for Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians, along with several other minority religions, but they have been displaced since ISIS took over the region. The Nineveh Plain Province resolution is aimed at supporting the Iraqi government in the creation of the province and allowing those indigenous populations to return to their ancestral homeland.
During the press conference, Robert Nicholson, the executive director of the Philos Project, which promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East, discussed the importance of the province, which would allow for decentralization of Iraq’s government. He said policy makers both in the United States and in Iraq believe pushing more power down to the local levels will help to increase stability in the country, and said, “The Nineveh Plain is the natural place to start.”
Nicholson said he believed the victims of genocide should be given top priority for protection through the province, and there are many displaced people who would love to stay in or return to their homeland if they are given protection.
“Weak minorities are caught in the crossfire and are unable to defend themselves… minding our own business is simply not an option,” Nicholson said.
Speakers at the convention discussed the importance of providing cultural and economic revitalization of the region in addition to security and political representation. At the press conference, Professor Alexis Moukarzel, the former dean of faculty of fine arts at the University of the Holy Spirit in Kaslik, Lebanon, spoke about the “cultural genocide” being perpetrated, which is erasing the memories and identity of the historic Christian community. In order to combat this cultural destruction, Moukarzel called for several measures to be taken in the Nineveh Plain, including the establishment of a small university and a fine arts center that could bring scholars and artists back to their homeland.
During the “Preserving Christianity on the Nineveh Plain” panel on Sept. 9, Dr. Stephen Hollingshead, the Managing Director of the Haven Project, an initiative of IDC to economically revitalize the Nineveh Plain, said, “We can’t expect families to stay… if they can’t get a job, can’t have a house, can’t take care of themselves,” he said.
He encouraged people to travel to the region in search of micro-economic opportunities, such as investing in the olive oil industry, as olive trees are huge assets in the area that are not currently being used.
On Sept. 9, the last day of the convention, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the resolution on a Nineveh Plain Province to Congress. The night before, Rep. Fortenberry, Rep. Eshoo and Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, were presented with Solidarity Awards by the IDC for their support of Christians in the Middle East.
“The Nineveh Plain was once a thriving, pluralistic area of Iraq with a rich tapestry of religious and ethnic diversity,” said Rep. Fortenberry. “This resolution, which follows on the government of Iraq’s own initiative to create a province in the Nineveh Plain region, seeks to restore the ancestral homeland of so many suffering communities.”
Also on Sept. 9, Knox Thames, the special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the U.S. Department of State, gave a keynote address at the convention in which he outlined some of the actions that the U.S. government is already taking to combat genocide, such as giving financial assistance, training forces in Iraq to stabilize the region and working toward equal citizenship and political participation for minorities.
“The United States is acting,” Thames said. “But we cannot do this alone.” Because of that, he welcomed the partnership with IDC and the Knights of Columbus.
The evening of Sept. 7, IDC held an ecumenical service to pray for Christians in the Middle East at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Washington. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, was the principal celebrant of the prayer service, and was joined by clergy from the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, the Maronite Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, and the Antiochian and Coptic Orthodox Churches.
Father Andre-Sebastian Mahanna, of the Maronite Catholic Church, was the master of ceremonies for the service, which he described as “a beautiful representation of the entire Body of Christ.” Before the service began, he guided the congregation through what was going to happen, and reminded every one that the cross they would see should remind them of the martyrs.
“We stand here as brothers and sisters in Christ to support and show our love and spiritual unity to one another through prayer and works for peace,” said Archbishop Pierre, in his opening remarks.
Throughout the service, the clergy members took turns praying and reading Scripture. The service included prayers in English, Arabic, Syriac and Latin.
In his homily, the Most Reverend Abdallah Elias Zaidan, bishop of the Maronite Catholic Church, said the first thing people should do is look within themselves and see if they have inner peace, but they also should go beyond that, expanding to look for peace in their families and larger communities.
“God’s peace is different from regular peace,” Bishop Zaidan said. “In peace you are complete. You are filled with the presence of God in you.”
During the “Genocide and Persecution: Past and Present” panel on Sept. 9, Walther said, “Each of the victims of genocide is not just a group, it is an individual.”