WASHINGTON, D.C. – Middle Eastern Patriarchs reaffirmed the deep history of Christianity in the Middle East and called for its perseverance into the future at this week’s In Defense of Christians summit in Washington, D.C.
They called for Western partners to remember that history, and to help keep Christianity in its ancient homeland, as people from around the world work for peace and an end to conflict in the Middle East.
“We as Christians in the Middle East: we are going to remain and stay there,” said the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi. “We are not strangers in that part of the world: we are people of light and of truth.”
Yazigi spoke Oct. 24 at the opening press conference for the In Defense of Christians (IDC) 2017 Summit, bringing together Patriarchs of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Middle Eastern Christians of all denominations, and policy leaders from the United States.
The organization and the summit seek to preserve and protect Christian and other religious minorities living in the Middle East.
This year’s theme for the Oct. 24-26 summit was American Leadership and Securing the Future of Christians in the Middle East.
The keynote speaker at the event was U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who promised direct American aid for persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) was the recipient of IDC’s Cedars of God award.
Speaking alongside Yazigi at the press conference held at the National Press Club were Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Bechara Boutros Rai and IDC Vice President Andrew Doran.
Rai pointed to the high number of refugees who had fled to his country of Lebanon, as well as to the West and other areas, as violence and instability has increased over the past several decades.
“The conflicts that have beset the Middle East have driven out millions of busy citizens, including so many Christians, and with their exodus, our region becomes more extreme, more dangerous to the outside world,” the patriarch said.
He pointed out that Lebanon has taken on an immense number of these refugees over the past 70 years, first from Palestine and now Syria, stressing the nation’s resources.
He noted that the proportion of refugees now living in Lebanon would be analagous to more than 150 million refugees living in the United States. He thus called on Americans to help solve these problems. “We have been abandoned to solve the problems we did not create,” the patriarch urged.
“We look to America to exercise its diplomacy to solve the many challenges in the region that have a direct and indirect impact on Lebanon,” he stated. “We have a long tradition of pluralism in the Middle East, but in recent years we have been divided against one another,” he lamented, calling for Middle Eastern Christians to come together with Muslims as well as with people from the West who wish to help in order to form a solution together.
Rai also pointed out that the West’s approach to refugees could be more helpful. While he emphasized that Christians want to go back to their countries, he questioned rhetoric from nations that say that “refugees should be allowed to live in dignity wherever they may be, while those nations have closed their borders and prevented them from entering into their countries.
“Where is the human dignity of all that? If the family is living under a tent and you’ve given them a meal, do you think that’s enough for their human dignity to be guarded?” he asked.
Yazigi echoed many of Rai’s concerns, especially the ability of Christians to have the “right to express on our destiny and our own plight.” He stressed that the Christian message is one of peace, of truth, and of the Good News: “The Church is the beacon of truth in this agitated world and we will continue to witness to that truth even if we are hanged on the Cross.”
In addition to calling for the end of war, the Greek Orthodox patriarch also stressed the necessity for Middle Eastern Christians to be involved in finding the solution to the problems they face – to be partners in finding peace. “Sometimes the media may portray us in a negative way, not necessarily in the way that we would have us portrayed,” he said, adding that “ if we are talking about our destiny in our land, we have something to say.”
One of the solutions Christians of the Middle East want, he stressed, is the ability to “seek unity of our own country” and rebuild their lives in their own homelands.
“We call all Christians and Muslims to work together for the well-being of their country.”
Mother Olga of the Sacred Heart, founder of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth and an Iraqi Christian, offered a statement as a member of the audience, saying that many Christians from the region “are lost in-between” political and military struggles of actors within the region and from overseas.
She urged Americans to consider the long history of Christianity in the Middle East, where it has thrived since the first century, and asked if “we expect it will be easy for people to leave their land?” when proposing solutions that require resettlement into new areas or permanent residency in the West.
She called for increased awareness and education on Middle Eastern Christianity among the American people, and advocated for all to seek permanent peace.