WASHINGTON – A small group of U.S. Christian leaders hosted an intimate meeting with the Iraqi Minister of Human Rights on Thursday to forge trust and build bridges between a war-torn Iraq and the United States.
"We always have to build relationships," said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based Christian Defense Coalition.
After a warm greeting with Minister Wijdan Mikha'il Salim, Mahoney and Kristopher Keating, director of the Hillside Missions Organization, presented a student exchange proposal that would provide children in Baghdad an opportunity to live in the United States for two weeks. The aim is to provide Iraqi youth positive cultural and community experiences as they reside with American families in Virginia while also introducing American families to Iraqi children and their culture.
The cultural exchange program adds opportunities for Iraqi youth and can help them gain a more tolerant and wiser worldview, says Keating.
Keating says this collaboration is just the first step in what they hope will be a long-term relationship with Iraq.
Salim, who belongs to the Chaldean Christian community, embraced the idea and was willing to work with the U.S. Christian organizations to launch the program as early as July.
Expressing her concerns over the children in Iraq, she explained that since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq many children are without families.
Her Human Rights ministry, which was established in 2004, is working to create programs in Iraqi schools that teaches students peace, love and acceptance, Salim said. The ministry is also making efforts to educate children on human rights and she hopes to eventually extend that instruction to teachers and families.
The ministry of Human Rights addresses the rights of prisoners, minorities, women, children, and the disabled and currently children are the primary focus, Salim said.
Since arriving in Washington on Sunday, Salim has been in discussions with several groups about the struggles of women and other minorities and the reforms she is seeking to implement to improve human rights.
In a discussion at the Wilson Center on Monday, Salim said the obstacle they come across when seeking support for human rights reforms is not religion, but tradition. She explained that religious leaders in Iraq are willing to support reforms as they believe the current oppressive laws are inconsistent with Islam.
Addressing human rights and religious persecution in Iraq is a major priority for the Christian Defense Coalition, but Mahoney believes in building practical bridges before touching on the subject.
While there is a time for prophetic witness, Mahoney said they have to "balance human rights with relationship" and noted that they are following the pattern of Jesus Christ.
Only from a place of relationship and trust can you address such sensitive issues as human rights and persecution, Mahoney noted.
Mahoney's meeting with the Iraq minister of human rights comes after years of relationship building with the Iraq embassy in Washington.
Formerly, Mahoney and a group of other Christians were invited to visit with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and his Cabinet members in July 2007. There they discussed forging stronger relationships of openness, conversation and trust and also prayed for Iraq. They also visited Salim in her home.
Frequently referencing Jesus and his Christian faith, Mahoney made it clear to Salim during her visit to Washington that their meetings weren't just photo ops and that God had put a burden on his heart for the people of Iraq.
Salim, who expressed genuine gratitude for the support of the U.S. faith community, plans to execute the cultural exchange program through the government, noting that the Iraqi people trust the government more than NGOs.
Keating of Hillside Missions, meanwhile, expects the Iraqi government to select ethnically Christian students for the program considering concerns the conservative Muslim community will likely have over sending their children to the United States.