THE BLOG
05/29/2014 11:51 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2014

A "Call to Action" On Behalf of Middle East Christians Gets Fresh Impetus From Pope Francis

As a news event, it had but a brief moment in the sun, mostly earning coverage in religious media. At a May 7, 2014 news conference on Capitol Hill sponsored by Reps. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), a distinguished group of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant lay and clergy leaders launched the "Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action on behalf of Christians and Other Small Religious Communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria."

In addition to calling for a grassroots campaign of prayer at the parish and congregational level, the statement -- to-date counting almost 300 signatories representing a broad spectrum of political takes on the many thorny issues involved in the region -- called for the appointment of a Special Envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities, a slight variation on a bill introduced by Wolf and Eshoo and passed by the House last fall; concrete consideration for "religious freedom and pluralism" as part of U.S. foreign policy; and dedicated U.S. aid to help Christian refugee and displaced populations find means to return to and stay in the lands where Christianity was born, countries that are now faced with a massive exodus of their ancient Christian communities.

Getting the ecumenical coalition together and coming up with a document all parties could sign off on -- including the Office of International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- was no small feat. Among the sticking points were the in the end moderate use of the word "persecution" as perpetrated by Islamic extremists specifically targeting Christians; and the importance of stressing that the majority of the Muslim population in the affected countries also suffers from the violent and ultra-dogmatic policies of their coreligionists. Aid to the Church in Need is very pleased to have played a modest role in editing the text and in rallying the coalition; our Chairman George Marlin is a signatory.

The question is: now what? The launch of the document came and went. There has been radio silence for the most part since. To their credit, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Prison Fellowship organization rallied their troops with massive mail blasts, urging members to write their legislators and especially to pray. It has been very quiet however on the Catholic front, which is too bad, since an important impetus for the initiative came from New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan who issued a passionate plea on behalf of persecuted Christians last November, when he called on his fellow bishops to make the persecution of Christians "a defining element of our pastoral priorities," and insisted that the US government "make the protection of at-risk Christians abroad a foreign-policy priority."

However, there is new momentum to build on in the wake of Pope Francis's visit to Jordan and the Holy Land. The Pontiff raised the core issue at hand in no uncertain terms. Speaking at the Royal Palace in Amman May 24, 2014, he said: "Religious freedom is in fact a fundamental human right and I cannot fail to express my hope that it will be upheld throughout the Middle East and the entire world. The right to religious freedom 'includes on the individual and collective levels the freedom to follow one's conscience in religious matters and, at the same time, freedom of worship... [it also includes] the freedom to choose the religion which one judges to be true and to manifest one's beliefs in public' (Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, 26 -- Pope Benedict's Apostolic Exhortation on the 2010 Synod on the Middle East). Christians consider themselves, and indeed are, full citizens, and as such they seek, together with their Muslim fellow citizens, to make their own particular contribution to the society in which they live."

Plus, strikingly, in their joint declaration Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Pope Francis prayed especially "for Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which have suffered most grievous due to recent events" -- the very three countries that are the focus of the May 7 "Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action." It is there where the bulk of the 15 million remaining Christians in the Middle East have until a decade or so ago made their home in relative stability if obviously not in complete freedom -- and it is there where the Christian Church is losing ground most dramatically. Action is needed urgently. It is to be hoped that Pope Francis' first trip to the region will help light a fire that will not be extinguished anytime soon.

Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA);