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
“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
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 planned to ask
elected officials to encourage Egypt to rebuild and construct churches
and bring “Turkey to account for its genocide against Armenians and
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 as keep it on the radar.”
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.