Assyrians join global Christian leaders on Capitol Hill to advocate for religious freedom

In Defense of Christians National Leadership Conference promotes security, equality across Middle East

September 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos by Joe Snell

WASHINGTON – In front of nearly one hundred of the world’s leading religious freedom advocates — including ambassadors and task force representatives from Armenia, Lebanon, and Egypt — Nahren Anweya, Assyrian activist and Director of Special Projects at the Middle Eastern Women’s Coalition, warned attendees of a “silent genocide” taking place among Assyrians in the Middle East.

“It shouldn’t take this much paperwork to stop a mass slaughtering of Christians in Iraq and Syria,” she said.

Nahren Anweya, Assyrian activist and Director of Special Projects at the Middle Eastern Women’s Coalition, speaks to religious freedom advocates at the annual In Defense of Christians Leadership Conference.

Anweya’s words were part of the closing panel during the sixth annual In Defense of Christians (IDC) 2019 National Leadership Conference: Fighting for Equality, Freedom and Security, which took place on Sept. 10 and 11.

The two-day event, co-sponsored by the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), began with a “Solidarity Dinner” reception. Members of Congress, senior State Department and White House officials, members of diplomatic corps and religious community leaders were in attendance.

The White House shared messages of support, including a letter from President Donald Trump and video from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo.

“[IDC] amplifies the voices of those who otherwise would have no voice,” Pompeo said in video remarks. “You share invaluable insight with top U.S. policy makers. You truly do the Lord’s work.”

U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom Samuel Brownback was the evening’s keynote speaker and accepted the Charles Malik Human Rights award for his leadership efforts across the Middle East, including his support for the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that established into law the promotion of religious freedom as part of U.S. foreign policy.

“There are millions of people right now praying in quiet corners and in little houses or huts that are persecuted throughout the world and they’re praying to God,” Brownback said. “That’s why you’re here, those prayers. They’re being heard.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA, received the Congressional Champion Award for her support of Christians and Yazidis targeted by ISIS and for her call to the U.S. government to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-FL, also received the Congressional Champion Award for his efforts to defense Coptic Christians and other religious minorities in 2011.

The second day of the event included a panel to discuss religious freedom efforts in Lebanon, Iraq, Armenia and Egypt. The panel was a preface to meetings with members of Congress to discuss issues including security in Lebanon, Syrians safe return to Syria, equal rights for Coptic Christians in Egypt and the safe return of Assyrians to Iraq.

The number of Assyrians in Iraq prior to 2003 was estimated at 1.5 million, according to the Assyrian Policy Institute, a non-profit organization formed last year to increase public awareness about issues affecting Assyrians. Today, the institute says there are fewer than 300,000 Assyrians in Iraq.

“For Christians most of all in the region, ISIS has to be defeated,” said Edward Gabriel, President and CEO of the American Task Force for Lebanon, during a panel discussion on the second day of the event.

Gabriel, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco, confirmed recent reports that ISIS is returning in parts of Syria. He warned that if the U.S. leaves Eastern Syria, it will lose leverage to dictate terms and conditions.  

Jeremy Barker, a Senior Program Officer and Director of the Middle East Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, said that many of the fundamental causes from ISIS are still present in Iraq. U.S. policy in Iraq, Barker said, should be a multi-tiered approach.

“Simply an ISIS-focused anti-terror campaign will not be sufficient,” Barker said. He pointed to governance issues such as the mishandling of providing basic services and failure to resolve disputes between religious communities as factors for escalating tensions across the country.

A major trust deficit exists between the Iraqi citizens and government, Barker said, and this leads to questions of who is really in charge.

“No one really feels [the government] as bearing the weight of responsibility of these communities,” he said.

Founded in 2014 as a response to the growing threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, In Defense of Christians is a U.S. non-profit organization that works to protect and preserve Christianity and its culture across the Middle East. The organization operates through political advocacy campaigns, conferences, research reports and educational events for policy makers, public officials and global religious freedom leaders.

The Leadership Conference, said IDC’s Government Relations and Policy Director Peter Burns, is a catalyst to continue pushing conversations of religious security and freedom in the Middle East and forces policy makers to confront these issues.

“We want to leave our attendees with a renewed sense that they are not forgotten, that their voices are being heard,” Burns said. “This event gives those individuals the opportunity to advocate for themselves. There’s nothing as empowering as when you get to walk into an office of your member of Congress and say, ‘This is my story and this is the action I would like you to take.'”

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