Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has observed that "even the simple admission of Christian identity places the very existence of [the] faithful in daily threat," and Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church's Department for External Church Relations, has been raising the issue with American churches for several years.
Happily, there are signs that some Americans are again paying attention to the issue. Last month on Capitol Hill, a wide coalition of Christian leaders was convened by the co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, representatives Frank Wolf of Virginia, a Republican, and Anna Eshoo of California, a Democrat. They committed themselves to a "Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action for Religious Freedom in the Middle East."
Although the persecution of Christians is widespread-Nigeria is where most are actually being killed, North Korea is the most repressive, China represses the largest number-the Pledge of Solidarity focuses on the Middle East and specifically on Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. These are countries where the situation has deteriorated rapidly to the point where Christian communities-along with smaller religious minorities such as Mandeans, Yezidis, Baha'is, and Ahmadis-now face "an existential threat to their presence in the lands where Christianity has its roots."
In the last decade, half of Iraq's Christians have fled the country, and many others have fled to the Kurdish region. In three days last August, Egypt's Coptic Christians experienced the worst single attack against their churches in 700 years-with 40 churches utterly destroyed and over 100 other sites severely damaged. Tens of thousands of Copts are estimated to have fled their homeland. Syria's Christians, like all Syrians, are caught in the middle of a brutal war, but, according to the pledge, they "are also victims of beheadings, summary executions, kidnappings, and forcible conversions, in deliberate efforts to suppress or eradicate their religious faith."
Too often these communities in the ancient heartland of Christianity have been forgotten. Speaking in Rome in December, Baghdad's Catholic Chaldean patriarch, Louis Sako, lamented, "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?"
In Washington, pledges like this new one tend to have about as much staying power as campaign promises. Still, there are reasons to believe that the Pledge of Solidarity will have an effect.
For one thing, the breadth of the coalition behind it is remarkable. Speakers included Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Oshagan Choloyan of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, and Greek Orthodox metropolitan Methodios of Boston. Pledge signers include Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission president Russell D. Moore, Sojourners' Jim Wallis, Episcopal Church presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Anglican Church in North America archbishop Robert Duncan, Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham, Robert George of Princeton University, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and George Marlin, chair of Aid to the Church in Need-USA.
Also promising is the fact that the Pledge of Solidarity sets forth focused goals-the appointment of a special envoy on Middle East religious minorities (legislation to create this position has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate, reportedly by a hold placed by Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma), a review of foreign aid to ensure it upholds principles of religious freedom, and an effort to see that refugee and reconstruction assistance reaches all religious communities.
But the pledge will have its greatest effect if, rather than falling on deaf ears, it awakens rank-and-file Americans and others to the religious diversity of the Middle East and the plight of Christians there and elsewhere. When Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I met in Jerusalem in May, their joint communiqué echoed the pledge, singling out "the Churches in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which have suffered most grievously due to recent events." The concern expressed by these religious leaders and a handful of politicians is abundantly justified. Still missing is any large-scale mobilization of free people on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world.
This column was first published in The Weekly Standard.