WASHINGTON -- Hundreds of church leaders from around the world gathered in solidarity at an inaugural summit in Washington, D.C., to speak up in defense of persecuted Christians.
Persecution -- including imprisonment, rape, torture and execution -- of Christians and other religious adherents continues to mount globally, according to research by various organizations. The repression and punishment of followers of Christ specifically brought together about 600 Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox leaders and persecution victims from more than 130 countries for the first World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians. Sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), the summit began May 10 and will conclude May 13.
The summit included addresses during its plenary sessions from Vice President Mike Pence and BGEA President and evangelist Franklin Graham, as well as at least two Southern Baptists -- former convention president Jack Graham and Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
Christians in many countries face persecution "on an unprecedented scale," Graham said in the opening session May 10. "Today, the Christian faith is under attack in almost every part of the globe."
Both Graham and Pence described the persecution by such Islamic extremist groups as the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as genocide of Christians.
Since the Bible promises persecution for followers of Jesus, Graham addressed why Christians should speak against it.
The persecution of Christians, "always and in every way, is evil," said Graham, also president of Samaritan's Purse. "God may and can use persecution to bring about good, but we should never remain silent.
"[T]he real reason that Christians are persecuted is to suppress their faith, quieten their voice and marginalize the very Word of God," he said.
President Trump "sees these crimes for what they are: Vile acts of persecution animated by hatred -- hatred for the Gospel of Christ," Pence told summit participants Thursday (May 11).
To the victims of persecution present, Pence said of the president and himself, "[W]e are with you. We stand with you.
"Our administration is fully committed in bringing relief and comfort to believers not only across the Middle East but across the world," he said. "This president knows the terrorists will not stop until we stop them. And under President Donald Trump, we will stop them."
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Travis Wussow attended the summit and said of Pence's speech, "We were deeply encouraged by the vice president's comments that international religious freedom is 'an American foreign policy priority.'
"Vice President Pence is undoubtedly deeply concerned about the plight of our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, and his presence at the event was significant and meaningful," said Wussow, vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "The event provided an opportunity for us to see many of our allies around the world and continue to drive forward on many of the projects we're working on."
Franks S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, also attended the event. He noted he was honored to hear Pence speak about the Trump administration's commitment to religious liberty and the protection of Christians and Christian churches.
"It was truly refreshing to hear a new emphasis on protecting the rights of all persons to be able to fully and honestly live out their faith," he said. "I left the meeting encouraged and grateful."
Already in 2017, three organizations have documented the increase in persecution of Christians and others:
-- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its annual report in late April the status of religious liberty globally "is worsening in both the depth and breadth of violations. The blatant assaults have become so frightening -- attempted genocide, the slaughter of innocents, and wholesale destruction of places of worship -- that less egregious abuses go unnoticed or at least unappreciated."
-- The Pew Research Center reported in mid-April 79 percent of the world's population lives in countries with "high" or "very high" levels overall of government restrictions or social hostilities, which constitutes a hike of five percent.
-- Open Doors, which serves the persecuted church overseas, said in its annual report in January the persecution of followers of Jesus continued to rise, with about 215 million Christians undergoing "high, very high or extreme persecution" in the last year in the 50 countries on its watch list. Its top 10 countries where Christians face the most severe persecution are North Korea, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen and Eritrea.
A Sudanese Christian shared his testimony by video in the opening session, recalling the hatred he had for his persecutors as they tortured him.
"God, if I have to suffer for you, I just don't want to die with hate," said "Ishmael," which is not his real name in order to protect his identity, of his prayer. "I want to be free."
He prayed for "a miracle of love," he said. "I decided to choose the Jesus way -- just to love them even when they don't deserve it. I decided to speak to everyone in the prison. They beat me more, and they tortured me more.
"When we are persecuted, we still have to love those who persecute us, because it is not about us. It's about Jesus Christ."
Global religious freedom is a primary issue for the ERLC.
"The ERLC often collaborates with other organizations for the sake of victims of religious persecution," said Matthew Hawkins, an ERLC policy director. "One current example is our support of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. H.R. 390 is a bipartisan effort which -- following the genocide committed by the so-called Islamic State against Christians, Yezidis, Shia Muslims and other religious minorities -- would support efforts to bring justice and aid to survivors and the families of victims."
The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee has approved H.R. 390, which is also awaiting action by the House Judiciary Committee.
Lankford introduced a resolution May 11 reaffirming the U.S. commitment to promote religious freedom "as a fundamental human right" and calling for the administration to take steps to fulfill that commitment. Sen. Christopher Coons of Delaware joined Lankford as the lead Democratic sponsor of the measure.
Lankford and others continue to urge Trump to name an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Time Magazine reported May 11 the genesis of the persecution summit was a meeting between Graham and Russian Orthodox leader Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. With the support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, they planned for Moscow to host the summit, but Graham moved it to Washington at the suggestion of the Russian leaders following Trump's election, according to Time.
Putin and he are both committed to protecting Christians abroad, Graham said, Time reported. Putin considers himself the defender of "the Christian remnant" in Syria, Graham said, and Christians -- as well as other religious minorities -- are primarily safe if they live in regions controlled by the Syrian government, according to the report.
Putin's government, however, has increased its restrictions on religious expression -- so much so that USCIRF recommended last month for the first time Russia be added to the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern," a designation reserved for the world's worst violators of religious freedom. Last year, Russia, on the mainland, "effectively criminalized all private religious speech not sanctioned by the state," according to the commission.
Graham was unavailable for comment on the Time article, a spokesman told Baptist Press.
In sharing his goals for the summit May 10, Graham urged participants to affirm their solidarity with the persecuted, to call attention to their plight, and to pray not only for the victims but for the persecutors.