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The Persecuted Religious Minorities in Iraq and Syria
By Kathryn Jean Lopez

Christmas mass at an Assyrian Orthodox church east of Mosul, Iraq. ( Reuters/Khalid al Mousily)
"I'm here on behalf of the president as a tangible sign of his commitment to defending Christians and, frankly, all who suffer for their beliefs across the wider world," Vice President Mike Pence said at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians in Washington, D.C., last week.

There the vice president acknowledged something that the previous administration, after some pressure, also recognized: some of the evil of religious persecution in the world today. Former secretary of state John Kerry would ultimately use the word "genocide" to call out the ongoing threat that the so-called Islamic State posed to Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Pence put more of a context on why one would ever take a moment to highlight the plight of Christians. "The reality is, across the wider world, the Christian faith is under siege," Pence said. "Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ. In more than 100 countries spread to every corner of the globe -- from Iran to Eritrea, Nigeria to North Korea -- over 215 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault, or worse, for holding to the truths of the Gospel. And nowhere is this onslaught against our faith more evident than in the very ancient land where Christianity was born."

The very existence of Christians as a people remains a question mark, as those who had to flee their homes look to return or hope for a life somewhere else. But they get lost in heated political debates and seem to have few sober leaders who will focus long enough on men and women and families needing practical hope and help.

Pence's words were important in highlighting a reality that doesn't always make the headlines. The administration in which he serves ought to take to heart some of its own words, and some of the people Pence recognized in his remarks. He said, "Let me also say how deeply humbling it is for me to stand today before the courageous men and women who are with us, who have stood without apology for their faith in Christ and suffered persecution across the wider world."

And then he named, among others, Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest who has been tortured by Islamic militants and will explain to you if you give him time that U.S. policy has not always taken into consideration the lives of the Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. I've found encountering him to be a gentle rebuke, even as he radiates gratitude for so many Americans wanting to help his people and for their leaders wanting to use the U.S.'s role in the world for good and human freedom and flourishing. Looking at people who suffer such persecution as he and his people have endured can't but help prompt an examination of conscience, whether you're an average citizen or an influential policymaker.

Pope Francis has been one of the first and most consistent voices talking about the fact that we have more persecuted Christians living in the world today even than in the first days of Christianity. Kudos to Mike Pence for saying some words about this.

As Pence delivered his remarks in the nation's capital, Pope Francis prepared to mark the centenary of the Marian apparitions in Fátima, an event that was critical in the life of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, and arguably in human history. John Paul was shot on May 13, 1981, the feast day of Our Lady of Fátima, and believed that Mary played a role in sparing his life.

He shared with the U.S. president at the time, Ronald Reagan, many bonds; both, for example, survived assassination attempts. "We have rediscovered the preciousness of freedom, its importance to the cause of peace and to restoring to humanity the dignity to which it is entitled," Reagan said during his visit to Lisbon in 1985, adding:

This belief in human dignity suggests the final truth upon which democracy is based -- a belief that human beings are not just another part of the material universe, not just mere bundles of atoms. We believe in another dimension -- a spiritual side to man. We find a transcendent source for our claims to human freedom, our suggestion that inalienable rights come from one greater than ourselves.

Reagan then paid tribute to John Paul II, saying:

No one has done more to remind the world of the truth of human dignity, as well as the truth that peace and justice begins with each of us, than the special man who came to Portugal a few years ago after a terrible attempt on his life. He came here to Fatima, the site of your great religious shrine, to fulfill his special devotion to Mary, to plead for forgiveness and compassion among men, to pray for peace and the recognition of human dignity throughout the world.

Besides good words -- and attention to the truth that is before our eyes -- our leaders, and the people who elect them and prod them to service to the common good, must be rooted in humility. That means looking and listening. To work in defense of persecuted Christians or anyone else means not working from a position of self-interest, from a defensive mode. It requires leadership rooted in something greater than ourselves. That's the tangible commitment that will keep us moving forward to true freedom and flourishing.


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