WASHINGTON — Hundreds of Americans from around the country gathered on the National Mall Saturday for the third-annual March for the Martyrs.
Religious freedom advocates called on American Christians to learn from those overseas who chose to die rather than renounce their belief in Jesus Christ, saying that they should be willing to lay down their lives for their faith if they should ever have that opportunity.
The event began with live worship music courtesy of John Forystek and speeches from For the Martyrs Founder Gia Chacon, Chaldean Catholic Priest Fr. Simon Esshaki and evangelists Jacob Coyne and Shane Winnings. Participants marched slightly more than a mile from the kickoff rally to the Museum of the Bible, where a night of prayer event was held.
At the Sylvan Theater, located near the Washington Monument, Chacon and Esshaki shared stories of Christians willing to die rather than deny or renounce their Christian faith.
Chacon profiled Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest who refused to yield to demands from Islamic militants to shut down his church in Iraq, vowing "as long as one person is coming to church, I will keep my doors open." Ganni was killed by fanatical terrorists in 2007.
"After a Sunday mass, as he just finished a service and he walked outside, and gunmen said 'why didn't you listen to us?' And they threatened him and some other deacons," she stated. "When asked why he did not close the church, Chacon reported that Ganni's last words were, "how could I close the house of God?"
Chacon elaborated on her previous conversations with Iraqi and Syrian refugees centering on the "atrocities that they faced because of their faith." She spoke of "whole villages in a single night, hundreds of thousands of Christians pushed out of their homes and killed in front of their families."
"ISIS or Islamist militants would come into their homes and charge them with the question, 'Are you a Christian?' And if they said yes, it ultimately meant death or being pushed out of their home," she said. "And these brave Christians, in the middle of the night, when they knew that ISIS was coming, when they knew that ultimately, they would be met with either death or torture, did they back down? Did they say, 'well, if they come to our door, then the easier thing will just be to convert?'"
Chacon expressed gratitude that these Christians declined to "say outwardly that we don't believe in Jesus, that we'll convert and maybe we can live in here in safety." She informed attendees that rather than renounce Christ to stay in their homes, they fled in the middle of the night.
"They fled because having Jesus to them meant having everything, and even if they lost everything, their family, their brothers and sisters, their moms and dads … if they could keep Jesus, that was more than enough for them, so they fled."
In his speech, Winnings contended, "Everyone here might not be called in your lifetime to die a martyr's death, but you are called to live a martyr's life."
"if we want to march for the martyrs, then we must first be willing to martyr our own lives before anyone else gets the chance to do it," he said.
"When you love your own life unto death, you'll do what Peter did. Peter denied Jesus to keep this thing ticking a little bit longer. He was thinking about self," he maintained. "On the same day that he said 'Lord, I'll die for you,' when push came to shove, he thought of self."
Winnings urged the crowd to put themselves in that situation and request the strength to "let it not be said of me that I considered my own life," adding, "We must die to ourselves to overcome the enemy."
Esshaki, a Chaldean Catholic priest who resides in San Diego, California, characterized himself as a representative of "one of the most ancient Christian groups to ever exist and also one of the most persecuted groups in the history of Christianity."
Esshaki states this group includes Iraqi Christians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriac Christians.
"All of the martyrs of our faith could have gotten out of it alive had they just denied their faith in Jesus, but none of them did, and that's why they are examples for us of how to live our faith, how to be faithful to the Lord in our daily lives," he declared. "They could teach us a lot about how to pick up our crosses and how to follow Christ, how to persevere to the end."
Esshaki outlined the events leading up to the death of the first patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, who refused to submit to pressure to convert to Paganism.
"He, along with five bishops and about 100 priests, were all beheaded because they did not deny their faith in Jesus Christ," the priest said.
"We are called to give our lives to Jesus every single day and to accept him into our hearts and to die to ourselves, to become sacrifices for the Lord so that we can be faithful while we live on this earth and be ready to enter into eternal life whenever the Lord calls us."
Esshaki's speech hit close to home for many attendees who are part of the Christian community with roots in the Middle East.
They elaborated on their experience with Christian persecution in interviews with The Christian Post.
Ranna Salem from Michigan said her "people have suffered a lot of persecution since the beginning of Christianity in northern Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran."
Salem, a Chaldean Assyrian, learned about the March for the Martyrs on social media.
"We saw some posts and our community was represented and we were just surprised to see it. Not a lot of people know about what happens to us," she said.
"I just hope that we can get some more attention. Because we live in America, people think that … Christianity is a privileged religion. But in the Middle East, it's actually the exact opposite. They are the most persecuted. They are second-class citizens, looked down upon. They just go through a lot of suffering. They aren't treated equally or fairly in the court system. There's just a lot that could be done to improve their situation with their neighbors, and I just want more people to be aware."
Brother Samer, a native of Baghdad, Iraq, who resides in San Diego alongside seven other monks, identified himself as a member of the Chaldean community.
"We're here just to march for the martyrs, and Father Simon invited us to come over" and "show our support for the Chaldeans who have been martyred, a lot of which have been family, relatives back home," he explained.
Samer rejoiced that "there's a lot of people here marching," reflecting positively on the "absolute blessing" of "meeting a lot of people who are giving their lives as testimony for Christ."
Ramsan Toma, who lives in Washington, D.C., has a personal connection to Christian persecution as a member of a Syrian community consisting of "the first Christian people."
"We are being persecuted in our homeland of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon," he said. He clarified that he was raised in the Roman Catholic Church and described it as "very similar to the Chaldean faith and the Assyrian faith of the east."
This was the second year that Toma participated in the March for the Martyrs. Toma noted that the U.S. Congress has allocated money for his community that "hasn't been able to get to us yet."
Highlighting the presence of an Assyrian Congressional Caucus in Congress, Toma expressed a desire to "keep the pressure on the elected officials here to help us in the states."
"We need a lot of help right now," he concluded. "We just need more attention, more security."
Shannon and her sister Andie were born in Pakistan but have lived in the United States since 2010.
Shannon, who currently lives in Washington, D.C., and previously lived in New York, told CP that Christians are the minority in Pakistan. The sisters became aware of the event after Shannon received an email from the Philos Project.
"It's just like really cool to be united with everyone and just to see … we all just stand for the same thing," Shannon commented.
Patrick Bereit, a student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, attended the event as a show of support for "the persecuted Christians across the world, to stand up for those who don't have a voice to speak for themselves and to help raise awareness of the reality of Christian persecution globally."
Participants extended beyond Christians with ties to the Middle East. Aden Meyers, an 8-year-old from Minnesota, was traveling in D.C. with his family when they stumbled upon the march by accident.
"We were here just to kind of explore, and we came up the hill, and it was closed, and then we heard the songs, and we came down, and we heard what they were doing, so we grabbed signs, and we just started marching," he said.
Meyers' family travels around the country as part of a ministry called World Share.
Murad from Dayton, Ohio, runs a ministry called Invasion Ministries International, which he described as a product of his vision from the Lord calling him to "light fires in America through outreaches and crusades." Members of the ministry live all across the United States.
Murad praised the March for the Martyrs as an opportunity to "be around a bunch of believers who believe the same thing, stand for the same thing, and just see the Lord glorified here in D.C."
Invasion Ministries International sells flowers to raise funds for their ministry. When Murad's teammates were "out selling flowers," they came across Chacon, who informed them about the march.
Several participants were carrying flowers they purchased from Invasion Ministries.
Seth from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attended the event for the first time as a "believer and follower of Jesus" who "just really wanted to ... share the love of Christ." Crediting his participation in the event to a "recommendation from a friend," he remarked, "the testimonies and stories that we heard are just extremely powerful."
Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org