WASHINGTON - Patriarchs of Eastern Rite churches met with President Barack Obama on Thursday at the close of a summit that drew attention to attacks against Christians in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
For the first time, leaders of major Maronite, Coptic, Armenian and Melkite denominations came together in Washington for what was billed as the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians, a Middle Eastern group.
The leaders of churches, who have quarreled in the past over theology and religious practice, made a show of brotherhood to highlight the dire situation of their flocks. In recent months, Christians and other minorities have fled Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria after being told to convert or face death.
Last year, scores of Coptic churches in Egypt were destroyed allegedly by Muslim brotherhood supporters.
Maronite Patriarch Mar Bechara Boutros Raï said the violence against Christians is painful enough.
“But, what makes [it] more painful still is the fact that such a human tragedy has been taking place under the very eyes of the world, which up to now has been simply watching those atrocities from the sideline,” he told a packed auditorium at the Capitol.
“What’s happening in the Middle East is a concrete manifestation of evil,” Armenian Orthodox patriarch Aram I said in an interview. “The violence, persecution, massacre - these are the different dimensions and manifestations of evil. Therefore this is not only a Christian problem. This is a human problem.”
The U.S. Congress is overwhelmingly Christian, and the lawmakers, who belong to Western churches - Catholic and Protestant, express increasing alarm about the violence against non-Muslim minorities in the Middle East.
Congressional representatives lined up to meet the patriarchs and address the summit. But New Jersey Representative Chris Smith suggested they shouldn’t get their hopes up.
“I have chaired almost a hundred congressional hearings on religious freedom,” said Smith, senior member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. "It is not from lack of knowledge. It is from lack of commitment, that Congress and the president have not stood up consistently, predictably, to speak out on behalf of the persecuted Christians in the Middle East.”
A gala dinner for In Defense of Christians Wednesday evening erupted in discord. Part of the audience booed Texas Senator Ted Cruz for suggesting that Middle Eastern Christians should see Israel as an ally, because “those who hate Jews hate Christians.”
But after listening to the speeches from other lawmakers, Syriac Catholic leader Youssef III Younan was optimistic.
“They all are convinced that the United States has to defend the rights of those [who are] defenseless,” he said.
Thousands of Younan’s followers have been forced from their homes in northern Iraq, and he hopes the U.S. will do more to help Kurdish and Iraqi forces make it safe for them to return.
The patriarchs also led a rare ecumenical service, repeating liturgies and prayers in English, Aramaic, Coptic and Arabic, to conform to their differing rites. At the end they embraced and exchanged the ritual greeting: “Peace be with you.”