Conference highlights ‘forgotten’ persecuted Christians

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 24, 2020 / 12:10 pm (CNA).- Religious and political leaders warned that Christians in the West need to speak up for persecuted Christians, during a summit Wednesday which highlighted the situations in Nigeria and Turkey.  

“We are facing a very, very critical time, and the West needs to step up—particularly the church in the West needs to step up,” former congressman Frank Wolf told an online audience of the advocacy group In Defense of Christians on Wednesday at IDC’s 2020 digital summit.

He brought up the killings of Christians in Nigeria by Boko Haram—a terror group which became the Islamic State of West African Province (ISWAP), with a splinter group subsequently taking back the name Boko Haram.

“In the pulpits of many Western churches, we have really heard the sound of silence,” Wolf said on Wednesday. Wolf was a long-time advocate for international religious freedom in Congress, where he served from 1981-2015. He authored the legislation that created the international religious freedom office at the U.S. State Department.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, one of several prominent Catholic prelates to address the summit on Wednesday, said that when he meets with persecuted Christians in foreign countries, “they’ll constantly say to me ‘we feel forgotten’” and ask for prayers and support.

“I say to them, ‘you got it’,” Dolan told the summit participants. “And I’m asking all of you not to make me a liar. We can’t forget those Christians suffering throughout the world.”

Wednesday’s event was co-chaired by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) with EWTN News Nightly anchor Tracy Sabol as the master of ceremonies.

Christians in Nigeria have been the targets of mass killings by both ISWAP and by militant Fulani herdsmen; a Nigerian human rights organization reported that by May 15 more than 600 Christians in Nigeria had been killed in 2020, and up to 12,000 had been killed since June of 2015. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto told Aid to the Church in Need in August that he believed Fulani violence against Christians had reached the level of genocide.

Toufic Baaklini, president of IDC, on Wednesday called on the U.S. to appoint a special envoy at the State Department to deal specifically with the crisis in Nigeria.

The U.S. ambassador to Nigeria and other humanitarian groups say that the killings of Christians by Fulanis are part of farmer-herder conflict, Gregory Stanton of the group Genocide Watch said. He likened that denial of genocide to the U.S. failing to stop the Rwandan genocide in 1994, where an estimated 800,000 were killed—mostly members of the Tutsi caste.

“We abandoned Rwanda,” Stanton said on Wednesday. “Will we similarly deny that genocide of Christians is already underway in Nigeria?”

Several participants also raised the issue of religious freedom in Turkey, where President Recep Erdogan has recently reconverted the cathedral of Hagia Sophia and another historic Christian church in Istanbul into mosques.

Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America said these actions were “perceived by the entire Christian world as a threat” to the peaceful existence of Christians in Turkey, and also to the freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Nadine Maenza, a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), also singled out Turkey on Wednesday, saying that the country is being given a pass for crimes committed in its invasion of Northeast Syria, when, as a NATO member “they should be held to even a higher standard.”

Also related to Turkey, participants discussed recent shifts in the U.S. policy recognizing the Armenian Genocide. In 2019, the U.S. House and Senate passed a resolution recognizing the genocide, despite multiple attempts by the White House to stall the passage of the resolution.

“Congress made history last year, and we must work to ensure this genocide is properly recognized by the U.S. government,” Baaklini said. “Tonight I call on the U.S. government to sanction Turkey for violations against international religious freedom as well as state-sponsored Christian persecution.”

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