Recalling martyrs, group looks for ways to protect Middle East Christians

By Rhina Guidos

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 the world.

“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 leaders.

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 also planned to ask elected officials to
encourage Egypt to rebuild and construct churches and bring “Turkey to account
for its genocide against Armenians and Assyrians.”

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 keep it on the radar.” Bishop
Mansour also emphasized that those gathered for the conference are not against

“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.

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