PLEDGE OF SOLIDARITY
We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant leaders, have come together in this joint pledge to speak up for our fellow Christians and other threatened religious communities in the Middle East. We invite other faith leaders and all men and women of good will who are concerned with the dignity and safety of all human beings to join us in this urgent task.
We are compelled to take this action by the grave dangers that confront the Churches of Egypt, Iraq and Syria, in particular. While Christians have been leaving the Middle East for many years, and, in these three countries, members of all communities—including smaller religious communities and Muslims—suffer from violence and political turmoil, the Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian Christian communities, under the additional scourge of intensifying religious extremism, are experiencing a sudden, massive exodus of their members from the region. Since these communities account for most of the indigenous Christians in today’s Middle East, the continued presence of Christians in the region where Christianity originated 2,000 years ago is threatened.
Recognizing the spiritual, humanitarian and geopolitical implications of this historic flight, we have joined together to affirm our moral obligation to speak and act in defense of religious freedom for all human beings.
As Americans, we believe that the ability to worship God, or not, and to practice freely one’s faith, is a basic, inalienable human right, as recognized in our country’s founding documents, and that it has universal application. We witness this right under assault today in Egypt, Iraq and Syria.
As Christians, we are called to take to heart Jesus’ own words in the Gospel of Luke that he was sent to, “proclaim freedom for the prisoners” and to “set the oppressed free.” We look, too, to what Paul told the Corinthians, speaking of the Church as the Body of Christ, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.” We are also enjoined in the book of Hebrews to “continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We are aggrieved by the suffering in the Middle East today of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We pledge to call together our own congregations and communities in sustained prayer, education and engagement in US foreign policy on behalf of these Christians and other threatened religious communities of Egypt, Iraq and Syria. All too clearly, we see the “tears of the oppressed” and cannot ignore them.
CALL TO ACTION
While the fate of Christians in the Middle East is unquestionably important to Christians, it should be emphasized that the continued presence of Christians, along with other religious communities, is in the national interest of that region’s countries and it is in America’s own national interest. We agree with President Obama’s assertion before this year’s National Prayer Breakfast that the right to religious freedom is an essential human right that “matters to our national security.”
Religious diversity provides the important experience of different faith communities living together. If the robust communities of Egyptian, Iraqi and Syrian Christians and other smaller religious communities continue to leave the Middle East, pluralistic co- existence would tragically be diminished region-wide. The Christians of Egypt, Iraq and Syria have rejected violence as an acceptable response to oppression and, instead, by both word and action, have supported a message of peace and non-violence.
Though Christians are a fraction of the overall populations of these three countries, they have long been an integral part of the social fabric, and have contributed, alongside Muslims, to the construction of the Arab civilization. They have had an especially formative role in promoting education, literacy, learning and health care that benefits society as a whole. They have participated in forming professional and entrepreneurial groups important for a dynamic middle class, as well as given rise to active intellectuals long committed to international norms and practices of human rights, the rule of law, and equal rights of individual citizenship — all essential for democracy and hence for making these countries partners in building societies where all faiths can live and prosper.
We are compelled to ask: Why are the Christians currently being killed or driven out? These communities represent openness to others and a desire for truth, even if inconvenient. They love learning and seek an equal share in building their respective nations. They do not believe in retaliation and embrace forgiveness. They respect individual life as an end in itself not as a means. These are attributes many Muslims also share and ones that any country would appreciate.
Even as we pledge to do all within our power to alleviate the suffering of Christians and other small religious communities in the Middle East, we urgently appeal for action from our government to recognize and act upon the unique plight of these religious communities.
It is our conviction that American foreign policy can be more effectively used to advocate for policies that protect international religious freedom for all. We welcomed President Obama’s public remarks regarding his March 27 meeting with Pope Francis, concerning his reaffirmation that “it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.” As a matter of conscience, we, therefore, respectfully call for the following actions:
I. Appointment of the Special Envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities. A new special envoy post, filled by a prominent and knowledgeable citizen is needed for deep engagement in the issues and circumstances affecting Christians and other small religious communities in the region. Over 20 special envoy posts exist to protect a range of other groups and interests but none is dedicated to the plight of Middle Eastern religious minorities. American policies continue to be formed without adequately taking into account the impact they might have on these vulnerable communities. A high caliber envoy of stature who has the ear of the President could increase American engagement regarding Middle Eastern religious minorities, so that:
• The views and interests, including physical safety and equal rights as citizens, of the members of small, defenseless groups are considered in any peace negotiations concerning Syria.
• Every diplomatic effort is made to press other governments in the region to stop facilitating, harboring, and assisting any extremist groups and militias, and to foster respect for the defenseless religious communities.
• Other policies to promote tolerance and respect for members of vulnerable religious communities in the Middle East are considered at the highest levels while there is still time to act. It was just such a special envoy who helped draw attention to genocidal levels of religious and ethnic persecution in Sudan and usher in a comprehensive peace agreement to end the north-south conflict there in 2005.
II. Review of Foreign Aid. As he has done in the interest of other stated administration priorities, President Obama should initiate an internal review to ensure that American assistance programs, especially those that support national governments, uphold policies and principles that relate to religious freedom and pluralism. The review should include examining the region’s national textbooks, local governmental broadcasting, statements by public officials, and national identity cards, where the inclusion of one’s religious identity is often used to deny rights. U.S. government- sponsored broadcasting, legal and constitutional assistance, and educational efforts should promote religious tolerance and protect religious freedom, including for small religious groups.
III. Refugee & Reconstruction Assistance. Our principal purpose in speaking out is to help Christian communities and other defenseless religious groups remain safely in the region. To that end, the vulnerable religious minorities, including those who are refugees in neighboring countries or displaced within their home countries, must have equitable access to American refugee, humanitarian, repatriation, and reconstruction aid. Many will need assistance to be relocated elsewhere in the region and American help could be decisive. The U.S. government must ensure that religious minorities are not discriminated against by local authorities in the distribution of aid donated by the U.S. government, as was reported to have occurred at certain junctures in Iraq, contributing to the wholesale exodus of its Christians and other small religious communities. It must also continue to reach Christians and others who eschew UN refugee camps that they perceive to be controlled by extremist groups. In some particularly tragic instances, we recognize that individual members of defenseless religious communities will never be able to return to their homes, and urge that those individuals be given fast track asylum in the United States and elsewhere in the West.
A generation ago, American religious leaders successfully mobilized support for the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. That law created the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and institutionalized regular State Department reporting on the status of religious liberty around the world. That legislation should be credited with helping to establish, as President Obama acknowledged at the National Prayer Breakfast last February, that “promoting religious freedom is a key objective of U.S. foreign policy.” Now, new action is desperately needed by our churches, our government and our civil society institutions here in the United States, and by all people of good will to make that objective a reality.