Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, gives a keynote address in Washington Sept. 10, 2019, at the sixth annual Solidarity Dinner hosted by In Defense of Christians. He urged more prayer and action to continue supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East. CNS photo/courtesy IDC

Christianity's future in Middle East has reached defining moment

By  Josephine von Dohlen, Catholic News Service
  • September 13, 2019

WASHINGTON -- In a room full of religious leaders, politicians and other supporters of protecting Christians threatened in the Middle East, Sam Brownback, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, urged more prayer and action to continue supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

"There are millions of people, right now, praying in quiet corners, in little houses or huts, that are persecuted throughout the world," Brownback said in his keynote address at the sixth annual Solidarity Dinner hosted by In Defense of Christians Sept. 10. "They're praying to God saying, 'Help us, we need some help here.' ... And that is why you are here, it is those prayers."

Honored as the recipient of the Charles Malik Human Rights Award for his leadership in the Middle East, Brownback continued to encourage attendees to fight for the safety of Christians, and religious freedom, worldwide in this crucial time.

"There is more persecution of Christians now, arguably than any time in the history of the world, and the Christian faith is the most persecuted faith in the world, by far," Brownback said. "And there are people being killed today because of their faith and they are simple, good people who want to just honestly and peacefully practice their faith. And they're being killed for it."

In Defense of Christians is a Washington-based nonprofit that seeks to bring together Christians working to change the policies that threaten Christians in the Middle East, as well as educate Americans on the reality of the situations in the Middle East.

Each year the organization holds it Solidarity Dinner as the first part of a two-day National Leadership Conference that includes a Capitol Hill advocacy day.

Brownback said the future of Christianity in the Middle East has reached a defining moment.

"If we're not successful, there will not be a multireligious Middle East; it will no longer exist," Brownback said. "Most of the Christians have been driven out of the Middle East already, and we're trying to work to fight to keep them there, but you've got to push now, and now is the season we can get it done."

While Brownback acknowledged the critical situation for Christians in the Middle East, he also spoke to the hope that he has for the coming months.

"The season is important; the time is short," Brownback said. "I believe we have the opportunity in the next nine months to do more for religious freedom than has happened in the last 20 years."

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, was recognized by In Defense of Christians as one of 12 IDC Congressional Champions of 2019 for her work in Congress to advance the mission of protections for Christians in the Middle East.

Speier is a co-sponsor of a resolution -- H.R. 259 -- which would "signal Congress's support for a goal to make sure that government works with local leaders to create the conditions for religious minorities to return," she said at the Solidarity Dinner.

"We need to recognize that our work here is never done," Speier said. "The challenge in the Middle East and around the world is urgent, and you need to continue to remind us in Congress how urgent it is."

Mona Rizk Rowan, an Arabic professor at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts, a survivor of the Damour massacre in Lebanon in 1976, shared her testimony at the dinner, revealing firsthand the dangers of living in the Middle East for many Christian families.

When Rowan was a young girl, her Maronite Christian town of Damour was invaded by militants with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hiding for their lives, Rowan and nearly 30 of her family members were shot. Her sister and brother, as well as other family members, were killed instantly. Rowan was shot twice, once in her arm, which was shielding her eyes, and once on her jaw, which immediately fell to the ground, she said.

"When they came ... to take my brother and my mother, and I was ... left for dead," Rowan said. "By the time they found me, about 24 hours had passed."

She was found by members of the Lebanese army and reunited with her father, who had escaped. To this day, Rowan seeks a lasting solution to repair her jaw as the cadaver bone currently implanted is thinning and she will soon need another procedure.

"Hopefully you are ... learning something from this," Rowan said. "By the grace of God, somehow I was able to live on. ... I had no choice ... I'm here for a cause. God kept me to spread a message, to be a voice for the dead who never had the chance to talk about what happened to them."

(Von Dohlen is a reporter at the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington)

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