Washington — A U.S. congressman told attendees at a Washington summit on Christian persecution that "more than ever before, vigorous U.S. leadership and diplomacy are needed to address religious freedom violations globally."
"Religious persecution is festering and exploding around the world. What has been unconscionable for decades, centuries, has gotten worse," Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, said May 12 in remarks at the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians.
The May 10-13 summit was convened by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and drew several hundred religious leaders and victims of Christian persecution from around the world.
Smith noted that a Washington conference held a month before, titled "Under Caesar's Sword," had "underscored the fact that Christians are the most persecuted religious community globally." In conjunction with that conference, a report was issued detailing the nature of persecution against Christians in different nations across the globe.
"In many countries, Christians suffer genocide and face an existential threat. For many believers, refusal to renounce Jesus Christ means martyrdom, rape, torture and pain," Smith said.
He recalled that 37 years ago during his first term in Congress, he was moved to tears by reading a book titled "Tortured for Christ" by a Romanian Christian pastor, Richard Wurmbrand, who also was the founder of the Voice of the Martyrs.
"As so many of you know, it is the true story of unspeakable physical torture and psychological abuse of underground Christians under Romania's dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and Pastor Wurmbrand's harrowing 14-year incarceration," he said. "Sabina, his brave wife, also suffered prison and forced labor for her faith."
"Like so many, I was inspired by Pastor Wurmbrand's indomitable faith, breathtaking courage and hope and challenged by his admonishment to believers to cease enabling evil by our naivete, coldhearted indifference or cowardly complicity," Smith added.
In 1982, he made his first "religious freedom mission" to Moscow and Leningrad on behalf of Soviet Jews, and his most recent such trip was before last Christmas to visit some of the Christian survivors of Islamic State genocide, and to press the U.S. and United Nations to help them. He and his delegation traveled to Iraq at the invitation of Iraqi Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil. They visited a camp with 6,000 refugees.
"We then sat with Christians and heard stories of ISIS atrocities, the desecration of churches, the crucifixions of young men who refused to join ISIS, and the sexual slavery forced on some young Christian girls," Smith said. "We also heard stories of hope, faith and charity — and joined in prayers for the persecuted and those who persecute."
The Archdiocese of Irbil has been sustaining the survivors with medical care, food and shelter, and also assisting Yezidis and Muslims who escaped ISIS, Smith said. At that point not "a single penny" in aid had been offered by the U.S. and U.N. humanitarian agencies — despite Smith chairing nine congressional hearings about it, he said.
Help also was forthcoming from the Aid to the Church in Need, the Knights of Columbus and other U.S. and European charities.
Since his trip, Smith reported, U.S. and U.N. representatives have visited these refugees and "have promised aid and protection."
"Whether it be defending unborn babies and their mothers from the wanton violence of abortion or protecting the vulnerable victims of human trafficking or feeding the hungry or mitigating terrorism and war — the exponential increase in the number of persecuted Christians worldwide today, begs a far more robust, effective and sustained response."
He said tools embedded in laws such as the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act "need to be rigorously utilized" by the United States to respond to this crisis.
President Barack Obama Dec. 16 signed the bipartisan measure, which was written by Smith and co-sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California. It gave the Obama administration and now the Trump administration and the U.S. State Department new tools, resources and training to counter extremism and combat a worldwide escalation of persecution of religious minorities.
It will improve U.S. religious freedom diplomacy efforts globally; better train and equip diplomats to counter extremism; address anti-Semitism and religious persecution and mitigate sectarian conflict.
Smith thanked Vice President Mike Pence for his remarks at the summit May 11, which "made it clear that religious freedom both at home and abroad is an extremely high priority for the new (Trump) administration."
Pence told attendees that "the suffering of Christians in the Middle East has stirred America to act" and that President Donald Trump has made it clear the U.S. "will stand by followers of Christ in this hour of need."
Smith said more work must be done to meet the needs of genocide victims of Iraq and Syria. To that end, in January he reintroduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, or H.R. 390. The House Foreign Affairs Committee adopted the measure, and Smith hoped for House passage "within days."
"This bill directs the U.S. government to provide humanitarian assistance to Christians and other religious minorities who survived the genocide and support ongoing criminal investigations into perpetrators to ensure they are held accountable," he explained.
Join the Conversation
Send your thoughts and reactions to our online Letters to the Editor column. Learn more here