On Wednesday, May 7, history is being made. On behalf of the suffering churches of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, a broad array of American Christians, with a degree of unity rarely seen since the Council of Nicaea in 325, have joined together in a “pledge of solidarity and call to action.”
Their action results from deepening concern about the “wave of persecution” in the region of Christianity’s roots.
In the “We the People” tradition, the pledge is a grass roots effort, with input from many sources. It is being released publicly on Wednesday morning by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), but it does not have any particular institutional sponsor nor a political leader spearheading it.
Some 200 Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox leaders have signed on -- from Catholic Cardinal Wuerl, to National Association of Evangelicals’ chair Leith Anderson, to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church to Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Oshagan Cholayan.
They include many lay civic society leaders, including Robert George of Princeton University, Jim Wallis of Sojourners, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, journalist Kirsten Powers, George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, and Lynne Hybels of Global Engagement of the Willow Creek Church.
These Christian leaders have come together across faith traditions and political affiliations in response to the increasingly dire appeals from Middle Eastern Christians. As Baghdad’s Catholic Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako recently cried out: "We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?"
As the pledge recounts:
“While Christians have been leaving the Middle East for many years, and, in these three countries, members of all communities—including smaller religious communities and Muslims—suffer from violence and political turmoil, the Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian Christian communities, under the additional scourge of intensifying religious extremism, are experiencing a sudden, massive exodus of their members from the region.”
With the rise of Islamist extremists, this situation has become so acute that, regarding the Christians, it is not only individuals who are threatened. The presence of the entire Christian community in the region of its birth is at stake. The pledge emphasizes:
“Since these communities account for most of the indigenous Christians in today’s Middle East, the continued presence of Christians in the region where Christianity originated 2,000 years ago is threatened.”
The pledge states that Egypt, Iraq and Syria have seen “scores of churches deliberately destroyed, many clergy and laypeople targeted for death, kidnapping, intimidation and forcible conversion, and hundreds of thousands of believers driven from their countries.”
Specific patterns of attacks detailed in the pledge include:
- Christians, including some clergy, after being identified as such by their names, identity cards, or some other means, have been beheaded, shot execution-style or otherwise brutally murdered. Clergy have also been killed for their peace-making efforts or simply as personifications of the Christian faith.
- Untold numbers of Christians, including bishops, priests, pastors, and nuns, have been kidnapped and held for ransom.
- Young women have been abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their captors.
- In some instances, Christians have been told to convert to Islam or be killed; some have been forced to pay protection money.
- Muslim apostasy and blasphemy codes and standards for dress, occupation and social behavior are being enforced for Christians, as well as for Muslims, in some communities.
The assaults continue despite rejection by the majority of Muslims and condemnation by prominent Muslim voices, such as Jordan's Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed and Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Sistani, as the pledge is clear in emphasizing.
The American Christian leaders who signed the pledge commit to work within their congregations and communities to pray, educate and engage in foreign policy on behalf of these endangered fellow Christians and the other small religious groups who are similarly vulnerable.
Asking “all people of good will” to join this effort, they also call on America’s elected leaders to act to adopt three specific diplomatic and foreign and humanitarian aid steps.
While promoting religious freedom is already a key objective of U.S. foreign policy, as the pledge concludes, “now, new action is desperately needed by our churches, our government and our civil society institutions here in the United States, and by all people of good will to make that objective a reality.”
Nina Shea has worked as a lawyer specifically focusing on religious freedom in American foreign policy, for thirty years. Joining the Hudson Institute as a Senior Fellow in 2006, she has led the Center for Religious Freedom, which she founded in 1986, in its effort to defend religious freedom internationally. Ms. Shea served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, for thirteen years until 2012, and has been appointed to represent the United States on U.N. human rights bodies by both Republican and Democratic administrations. She has co-authored two books on religious persecution ("Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians" (Thomas Nelson 2013) and "Silenced," Oxford University Press, 2011), and authored four studies on violent teachings in official Saudi education materials, making her an authority on the subject. She currently is a leader of a campaign for Christians threatened with genocide by ISIS.