Hundreds of activists, including Christian clergy from across the Middle East and more than a dozen members of Congress on Tuesday begin a three-day conference aimed at training a serious policy-impacting force in Washington to protect persecuted Christians overseas.
Concern has been building for two decades about the plight of minority Christians in certain hot spots in the Middle East and Africa, but upheaval across Iraq and Syria in the last few years has displaced hundreds of thousands, leading some U.S. faith leaders to frame this as an unprecedented new era.
“I don’t want to have on my conscience that I was complicitous in something as horrendous as this simply by being quiet,” Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl told a Mass of Catholic University students recently in remarks that went viral. He said “there is clearly an effort to eliminate” religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. “Often we’re asked,’ How is it possible that in human history atrocities occur?’ They occur for two reasons. Because there are those prepared to commit them and there are those who remain silent.”
Wuerl will be among the speakers at the conference. “Protecting and Preserving Christianity, Where it All Began” is organized by a new non- profit called In Defense of Christians whose leadership mixes prominent Arab-American Christian leaders from the private sector and well-known Republican political players John Ashcroft and Ray LaHood, among others. It brings more Capitol Hill firepower to a topic that has been difficult to organize around in part because the Middle East – and the roots of its problems – has been so polarizing.
The summit, which is being held at the Omni Shoreham in Northwest D.C., includes advocacy training, Hill lobbying, a session on using social media to impact human rights and a lecture about the ancient history of Christians in the Middle East.
Speakers include U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; Bishop Julian Dobbs, an Anglican leader who focuses on speaking about Islamic extremism and longtime Arab-American activist James Zogby, a rare Democrat on the new organization’s board.
Zogby highlights U.S. foreign policy over the decades as a major cause of the strife that has harmed minorities, and said in a recent interview that any effort aimed at helping religious minorities needs to be broad.
“As a Christian, I have to look at it beyond the Christian context because as a believer, I’m not called to defend myself; I’m called to promote good in the world and to defend others who are vulnerable,” he told the National Catholic Reporter this week. “Especially as American Christians, this should not be about defending our own and to hell with the rest. This is has to be about how do we help foster, how do we, in a sense, atone for the sins of our past, sins that helped foment this kind of sectarianism.”