Now that Pope Francis is in his first day of his two-day visit to Washington, D.C., advocates for persecuted Christians in the Middle East are urging the pontiff to speak out forcefully on their plight in his meeting with President Obama Wednesday and in his historic address to Congress the following day.
At the regular briefing for White House reporters on Tuesday, I asked press secretary Josh Earnest whether one of the common interests he said the president and the Pope shared — namely “prioritizing those less fortunate” — included Christians in Syria and Iraq who have been persecuted and if this would come up in their meeting.
“I certainly would include in the category of values they share in common is a commitment to religious liberty and certainly standing up for the rights of religious minorities around the world,” Earnest replied, “And we’ve talked a lot about how one of the things, particularly early on in this ISIL campaign, was a concerted effort on the part of the United States military to make sure that we were taking actions to try to protect religious minorities in Iraq. So that has long been a value that President Obama has prioritized.”
However, the president’s top spokesman went on to say he didn’t know whether “this is something that will be discussed by the two leaders in the Oval Office or not. But it certainly gives me an opportunity to talk about another value that they share in common.”
But the advocates for persecuted Christians with whom I spoke made clear they are hoping for that and more on the part of Pope Francis.
“I’m hoping the Pope points out that thousands of Christians are persecuted, denied their fundamental rights, and killed because of their faith [in the Middle East],” George Marlin, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need USA, told me.
Marlin, who has written a much-praised book on the subject of Christian persecution in the Middle East, emphasized that “someone has to bang pots and pans on this issue. The Administration is not doing it. The national media is not doing it. If the Pope brings this up, it makes front-page news worldwide.”
Former Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.,, a senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Institute and longtime champion of people persecuted for their religious beliefs, told me that “what is happening to Christians in the Middle East is clearly genocide. Pope Francis has already said ‘a form of genocide is taking place and it must end’ [during his trip to Bolivia on July 9, 2015].
“If he uses the word ‘genocide’ in his address to Congress to describe what is happening to Christians in Iraq and Syria and to the Yazidis [another Iraqi-based religious group targeted for extinction by ISIS], it is a total game-changer. It will almost certainly force a resolution in Congress condemning anyone who aids ISIS as assisting genocide.”
Wolf, who served in Congress from 1980-2014, recalled how after returning from a trip to Darfur in 2004, he Gov. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., who was a senator at the time, co-authored a resolution branding the conflict there as genocide “and this focused the world’s attention on Darfur and its refugees.”
“This administration has been terrible in dealing with the plight of Christians in Iraq,” the former congressman added, noting how Christians he met in Northern Iraq consider the U.S. consulate there “not friendly” and how a Dominican nun in Iraq named Sister Diana Momeka could not get a visa to testify before Congress about ISIS’ assault on religious minorities until a prominent rabbi intervened on her behalf.
Wolf’s call for the Pope to address what is happening to Christians in the Middle East in his remarks to Congress and call it “genocide” was strongly echoed by Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.
“If Pope Francis calls it genocide before Congress, there will be a moral clarity added to this issue and it will bring a new ray of hope to persecuted Christians,” said Taimoorazy, herself a refugees from Iran who came to the U.S. in 1991, “The whole world will now be paying attention.”
In underscoring why the Pope must use the word “genocide,” she cited the fact that the Assyrian Christian population in the Middle East was 1.6 million prior to 2003 and “now we only have 300,000.”
Taimoorazy also voiced strong agreement with Marlin and Wolf that the Obama administration is not doing enough on this issue.
The president did condemn the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians by ISIS-affiliated terrorists in February, but, she said, “his official statement referred to them as ‘Egyptian citizens’ and not ‘Christians’ because he did not want to upset the Muslim world. Enough is enough.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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