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175 Leaders Urge U.S. Support in Christianity's Historical Heartland; Egyptian Churches Not So Sure
Image: The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission

More than 175 Christian leaders crossed denominational and political divides this week to urge the United States government to do more to help the rapidly diminishing, historic Christian populations of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt.

The solidarity pledge—signed by National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) president Leith Anderson, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, and Samaritan's Purse president Franklin Graham, among other prominent names—presented on Capitol Hill asks for the appointment of a special envoy on Middle East Religious Minorities, a review of foreign aid, and refugee and reconstruction assistance. (Full text and signatories at bottom.)

"These defenseless religious communities are facing an existential crisis, which threatens their very survival in the lands they have inhabited for centuries," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a longtime religious freedom advocate who helped create the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in 1998. "The faith leaders … recognize that unless the American church begins to champion this cause, the foreign policy establishment will hardly lead the way. They are committing to be their 'brother's keeper,' whether in Nineveh, Cairo or Homs."

Wolf and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), co-chairs of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East caucus, have called for the creation of a special envoy to the region to monitor the status of religious minorities and relay their grievances. The U.S. House approved their bill in September 2013. It has not yet come to a vote in the U.S. Senate.

Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are among the eight countries that should be added to the State Department's list of "countries of particular concern," according to USCIRF's 2014 report. Egypt and Iraq were also on last year's list for tolerating or perpetrating "severe violations of religious freedom." However, the State Department still only designates eight countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

The Middle East solidarity statement gathered an impressive mix of American Christian leaders. But in Cairo, the latest overture received a mixed reception.

"We value so much the prayers and concerns of our Christian brethren around the world, and in the U.S. especially," said Fawzi Khalil, pastor at Kasr el-Dobara Church in Cairo, the largest evangelical congregation in the Middle East. "But we don't believe outside pressure would be best for our daily life with our Muslim friends. The government of Egypt with local Christian leaders are best suited to fix our problems."

Khalil's reaction is the longstanding public position of many Egyptian church leaders. "Egyptians are extremely sensitive about international public attention for specific groups," said Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of the Cairo-based Arab West Report.

The question of whether Western involvement actually helps or hurts is "part of a debate that has been going on forever," notes Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. "It is an important debate, and no one answer fits all in the region.

"However, I think the current moment and this pledge transcend this debate,"Ihe said. "It is bipartisan, not only in Congress, but also across the usual liberal vs. conservative churches in America."

Beyond the NAE, signatories included Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church; Charles Chaput, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia; and Metropolitan Methodios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Other prominent supporters include James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family; Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church; Johnnie Moore, senior vice president of Liberty University; and Jim Wallis of Sojourners Magazine.

Tadros notes also the involvement of many Middle Eastern churches in the petition, representing their shifting attitudes. But the biggest factor, he said, is simply the enormity of the problem.

Ancient Christian populations are shrinking rapidly. Christians represented 20 percent of the Middle East population a century ago. Now they are only about five percent, with rapidly declining percentages in Syria and Iraq.

"Syrian Christians are facing their greatest threat in modern history, and the August 14 attack on Coptic churches was the largest since the 14th Century," he said. "We are no longer talking about small problems. The churches realize the monumental threat they are facing."

But Egypt is hardly in the same situation as Iraq or Syria, Khalil said. One of the petition's requests is for the U.S. government to assist with the resettlement of refugees, which is unnecessary in Egypt.

The most concerning in Cairo of the petition's demands is the review of foreign aid tied to the promotion of "religious freedom and pluralism." Many Egyptian Christians hear the latter, especially, in terms of the demand for political inclusion.

"I am glad Americans are now finally recognizing the plight of many in this part of the world," said Naguib Abadir, a Coptic founding member of the secular Free Egyptians Party. "But I think they should direct their efforts towards the U.S. government to stop supporting terrorists and their organizations, namely the Muslim Brotherhood."

Many Egyptians see recent U.S. decisions to withhold aid as an attempt to pressure the government to restore a political place to the Brotherhood, which was popularly removed from power at the hands of the Egyptian military.

The recent upsurge in terrorist activity is blamed on the Brotherhood, despite their denials and condemnation.

"Our defense should not come from outside, but from ourselves and the Muslims around us," said Antonius Aziz, the Coptic Catholic bishop of Giza. "It will be a negative step to reduce aid to the government, which will weaken it and result in less stability."

Some Egyptian Christians see Iraq and Syria—where the governments largely collapsed—as examples of what happens when the U.S. "interferes." Instead, they support their military-backed government, even amid human rights abuses.

The petition recognizes that many Muslims are opposed to extremists who threaten Christian communities. One cosigner, Andrew White, the Anglican vicar of Baghdad, praises the efforts of the Iraqi government even while watching the local Christian presence sink from estimates of 1.5 million to 260,000.

While no signatories are Coptic Orthodox Church representatives, quite a few are Copts residing in the United States.

One is Maged Atiya, a physicist, businessman, and political analyst.

"High among aid metrics should be the respect for the rights and free practice of all religions," he said. "The promotion of a plural and tolerant society should weigh equally with promotion of democratic norms."

For Atiya, it is a simple matter of principle. "This is an expression of my belief as an American, born in Egypt, in the rights of all minorities to live freely."

Here is the full statement:

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