WASHINGTON—A broad coalition of religious leaders and organizations on Wednesday announced a pledge of solidarity and call to action for American Christians to stand with persecuted communities in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria.
“The targeting of religious minorities in the Middle East is heart-breaking, and we should respond with a combination of tears and anger,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals during a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, hosted the event and urged American believers to pray, give, and advocate on behalf of suffering Christians. They also called on the U.S. Senate to pass legislation to create a State Department special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East and South Central Asia, which the House has twice passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“These are the original Christians of the world,” said Eshoo, who co-authored the bill and comes from both Armenian and Assyrian heritage. “Why the Western world has not had a greater appreciation for this really mystifies us.”
More than 175 leaders from Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox traditions signed the pledge of solidarity, including Anderson, Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan’s Purse, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Jerry Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Catholic archbishop of Washington, Canon Andrew White, chaplain at St. George Anglican Church in Baghdad, and WORLD Editor Mindy Belz.
Belz traveled to Iraq last month and chronicled the dwindling Christian population there in WORLD’s May 17 issue. The story features White, known as the vicar of Baghdad, who attended Wednesday’s press conference. He urged U.S. Christians to join their brothers and sisters who are struggling to survive: “You might be here in D.C., I might be in Baghdad, but we are one. We are together the children of God.”
White went on to reel off a list of experiences most Americans can’t imagine: He’s been shot at, kidnapped, and thrown into rooms with people who had their fingers and toes chopped off. He’s also seen terrorists blow up his church and medical clinic. “I will never, ever leave,” White told me afterward. “I can’t leave the people I love. I will be there until the last person is there.”
White, who on Saturday received the Wilberforce Award from the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, estimates about 1,000 of his parishioners have died at the hands of Islamic extremists in the last five years. According to the United Nations, insurgents killed 8,868 Iraqi civilians in 2013.
In Syria, the three-year-old civil war has devastated the Christian population, even though some have remained steadfastly in place. Last week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom added Egypt to its list of the worst religious freedom violators in the world, a problem that has grown progressively worse since the country’s 2011 revolution.
Christians form the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, totaling about 15 million. The majority of those live in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, which is why the group chose to highlight those three countries, said Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. “What is happening in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria is different,” she said. “Christians are being targeted for their faith. If they are driven out, the entire Christian population is at risk.”
With nation-wide elections coming in the fall, Anderson suggested Christians ask every candidate what they intend to do to support those persecuted in the three countries. “Syria, Iraq, and Egypt are becoming the most unsafe places in the world for Christians,” he said.
While the pledge focuses on the plight of Christians, it also notes other “defenseless religious groups” suffer in the three countries, including Mandeans, Yizidis, Baha’is, and Ahmadis. “It has become abundantly clear that the brutal extremist campaigns are resulting in the eradication of non-Muslim religious communities” and denial of even basic rights for those who remain, the pledge said.