Shaped by a life of service to Christ’s Church, Fr. Christopher has dedicated himself to using all the tools God has placed at his disposal to spread the light of Orthodoxy across America. As Founding Father and host of the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN) and the “Come Receive The Light” national Orthodox Christian radio program, he shepherds a dynamic and rapidly expanding ministry bringing joy, hope, and salvation in Jesus Christ to millions of listeners on Internet and land-based radio around the world in more than 130 countries. Fr. Christopher lives in Brookline, MA and is the President of Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
On September 8th, I made my way to Washington DC, together with a diverse group of archbishops, bishops, priests, theologians, laymen, and politicians, to attend the 1st Inaugural Summit of the “In Defense of Christians” Conference (IDC). This was the first time people of faith met to discuss the killing of thousands of Christians in the Middle East that has shocked the world. It was also a meeting, as many conference speakers noted, on the eve of President Obama’s much-anticipated address on a US foreign policy strategy to deal with ISIS, something very much on the minds of all who attended.
Unfortunately, the five Patriarchs of the original church of Christ were not in attendance, but other Patriarchs, Cardinals and Archbishops of the Armenian, Coptic, and Maronite Churches under the spiritual direction of The Roman Catholic Church were present. The newly elected Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America was present, representing His Beatitude Patriarch John X, who was unable to attend.
The Summit opened with a press conference at the National Press Club, with an impressive array of spiritual and secular leaders on the dais, including:
His Eminence, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches
His Eminence, Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros
Cardinal Raï, Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
His Beatitude, Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
His Beatitude, Gregorius III Laham, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, Alexandria and Jerusalem
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
His Excellency Ibrahim Ibrahim, Bishop Emeritus of Chaldean Eparchy of Saint Thomas the Apostle
Dr. Robert George, Princeton Unversity McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Vice Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Nina Shea, Director, Center for Religious Freedom, Hudson Institute
Robert A. Destro, Professor of Law, The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law
Nermein Riad, Executive Director, Coptic Orphans
Professor Robert George spoke eloquently and from his heart, saying that it was an honor for us to be together as Christians, but that we are extremely saddened by the victimization of the Christians in the Middle East. He asked where is the voice of the American Christians in this catastrophe? It must become loud and frequent if something is to be done to stop this genocide, a word used quite often during the course of the Conference.
Cardinal Wuerl, whose Archdiocese of Washington hosted the conference, expressed his gratitude to the summit organizers and praised their efforts on behalf of those suffering, while also welcoming the distinguished hierarchs to the nation’s Capital. He said, “We stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Middle East who suffer, and we are united in spirit with resolve and purpose to see this to a good ending for all. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being a voice. This is our first gift to those who suffer. Please don’t walk or look away now at this tragedy. Please be aware.”
His Eminence, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, brought special greetings and blessings from His Holiness Pope Francis. He stated that we are facing two main issues at this conference: (1) the killing and uprooting of the Christians by Jihadists and (2) the role of the local authorities in developing a solution to return the Christians to their rightful homes. Over 120,000 Christians have been evicted, their belongings destroyed, and their Churches desecrated.
The world has stood by for too long, the Cardinal stated, and the local governments are just too weak and unable to protect the Christians. He stated, however, that he felt things were about to change with a stepped up effort by the United States. It is now time, he said, to act to protect innocents using force that is required to regain a stable environment for parents and children to live in peace. We must respond as the most powerful nation in the world to this tragedy to save humanity. “What we are experiencing is 8th Century barbarianism with 20th century weapons, which is a lethal combination.”
Nina O’Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute also spoke at the Press Conference. She stated this is the worst example of violence in Iraq in the past five years. “It is now known that 91% of Americans feel the threat of ISIS now reaches all people for we are experiencing an impending cultural genocide.”
These introductory remarks were followed by questions and answers directed to the panel by the press. Yours truly posed a question to Andrew Doran, Executive Director of IDC. I asked,”What is the direction that you hope this conference will take, and what do you hope people will do after this event?” Andrew thanked me for the question and responded that there are three areas of direction that will be developed during the Conference, which will then be expanded upon. They are: (1)Advocacy for the Christians of the Middle East, including action, not just words; (2)Establishing a Unity of Purpose with our coming together for a common cause; (3)Raising awareness of the plight of the Christians of the Middle East.
One of the highlights of the Conference was the address by John Ashcroft. Without written notes, he delivered one of the post powerful and spiritually moving messages of the gathering, telling everyone he was not a theologian, nor had he studied theology. You could have fooled this listener! His message was riveting. He spoke about how God is the creator of diversity in people, and therefore, we do not have a right to compel people to believe as we want them to. In fact, that would be going against the free will He gave to His first creation, Adam and Eve. Our diversity doesn’t separate us, and our God-given creation binds us together in respect and love for the image He placed in all of us. Liberty of the person is sourced by God. Governments and social movements cannot dictate or force a life style. Our spirituality is not the stuff of an imposed nature; it is inspired by God. How can someone, in the present case a group like ISIS, feel that God didn’t get it right? How can they feel entitled to correct the situation by force? This is completely contrary to our nature and our creation.
His Eminence, Leonardo Cardinal Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, gave an impassioned speech and did not tire once as he spoke of the beauty of God’s creation and the fact that no one has the right to deny basic freedom to anyone. He also shared a message from His Holiness Pope Francis.
His Beatitude, Aram I Keshishian, Catholicos of the Holy See of Cilicia of the Armenian Apostolic Church, was forceful and inspired in his comments. He reflected on how the mere survival of Christianity in the Middle East through all of the turmoil is a miracle in itself. He spoke of the sayings of Christ, that we should all be one and that no one can stop this command and wish of God.
His Grace Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, posed the thought that seven centuries of normal civilization was now at stake in the Middle East. The type of persecution we are seeing now has not been witnessed for centuries. The freedom we have represents privileges given to us by God that must now be protected by the world at large. Democracy as we have come to know, love, respect and yet sometimes challenge it, is a gift, but it is not for everyone. It cannot be imposed on others who may not be ready to receive it. His Grace finished with three ways to respond to the current challenge. 1. We can respond with our own Christianity, standing hand in hand together as a chain that cannot be broken. 2. We can stand in unity with those who are ethically and morally in agreement with us, even if they are not of our own beliefs. 3. We can begin a united effort for those in need. Do not allow anyone to be used as a bargaining chip.
Many of the delegates were anxious to visit their senators and representatives on the Hill, so Professor Destro took some time to outline how one can properly influence elected officials to gain votes for your cause. He asked all to not retell the story of the atrocities of the Christians since the members have already been updated on the horrific situation. Rather, he encouraged the attendees to get to know their representatives and also their staff, and to ask them to vote the way that will bring about positive change in the Middle East and assist the persecuted Christians. One of the major themes that continued to surface throughout the summit was for the United Nations to fully engage itself in the conflict because of the number of nations being affected.
Numerous members of Congress came to address the Conference Attendees and spoke with passion and purpose. Approximately 17 came to speak, even though they were all preparing to listen to the decision of the President on what strategy he was going to employ in dealing with ISIS this evening.
As many of you are aware, Senator Ted Cruz’s speech was the source of great upset and controversy. A room full of approximately 800 people shouted him down and booed him off the stage. I was there when this happened, and I encourage you to read my full account of that event here. It would be difficult to understand what really happened without being there in person.
In two days of meetings, I only heard one mention of the two bishops who were kidnapped in Aleppo, Syria on April 22, 2013, and they were mentioned only by their titles, not by name. This to me was a huge disappointment. Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi, the brother of Patriarch John of Antioch, and the Syriac Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim have been missing now for more than one year. Please, everyone, keep them in your prayers.
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