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Civic leaders and clergy go to Washington to plead the plight of Christians in the Middle East

BOROUGHWIDE — It was a mission of passion and mercy as Bay Ridge civic leader John Abi-Habib, who serves as honorary consul of Lebanon in New Jersey, and the Very Rev. Thomas Zain, dean of the St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights, traveled to Washington earlier this month to deliver a heartfelt plea on behalf of the Christians living in the Middle East.

They were in Washington, D.C. for the annual In Defense of Christians banquet. The IDC was formed about six years ago to advocate on behalf of the plight of Middle Eastern Christians.

The issue is one that has been emphasized by the current administration. During his headline speech at a religious freedom event at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Sept. 23, President Donald Trump maintained that protecting religious freedom was one of his highest priorities and called on other nations to halt persecution of various religious communities, including Christians in the Middle East. 

The Hill quoted Trump as saying, “Today with one clear voice, the United States of America calls upon the nations of the world to end religious persecution.”

“After the banquet, we went to work,” said Zain. “There were people from all over the country representing the various churches that have their roots in the Middle East including the Antiochian Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Syriac, Armenian Orthodox and the Coptic Church of Egypt.”

Father Tom Zain outside the Capital.

Zain continued, “The IDC has become something like an umbrella for all of the various groups, sometimes with different interests, to act on behalf of all of us and bring attention to the fact that there is an indigenous Christian community in the Middle East going back to the origins of Christianity. They have lived on that land since the dawn of Christianity, and at different periods of time throughout their history, including in some places today, where they have been persecuted,” he added.

Among the lawmakers the group of advocates met with were Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Max Rose.

“If you look back 50 years ago, or even 20 years ago, there was a synergy of living between Christians and Muslims and there was a really nice balance,” Abi-Habib told this paper.

“In Lebanon today, they are living together peacefully and each adds value to the other,” he went on. With everything happening in the Arab world, between extremists like ISIS, they always change the names but to us they’re extremists, who are pushing out the Christians in the Middle East and upsetting the balance that used to be there. And it’s not only Christians, but other minorities as well, like Assyrians and Kurds that live in countries such as Iraq, Syria or Egypt.”

John Abi-Habib and Father Tom Zain in front of the Capital.

According to Zain, the main focus of the meetings revolved around key resolutions that were put before the House regarding the difficult circumstances under which the Coptic Christians of Egypt live and legislation to put pressure on the Egyptian government to do more to protect them and treat them as equal citizens; the dire situation of Christians in Northern Iraq from where they have almost disappeared and need help and protection in order to return; the situation Lebanon is facing given that its population of about four and half million is made up of nearly two million refugees, stressing the need for the U.S. to help repatriate the Syrian refugees now that the war in Syria is coming to an end; and the recognition of the Armenian genocide, realizing that while the majority were Armenians, there were many Greek and Syrians killed during World War I.

“The Coptic Christians in Egypt trace their roots back over 2,000 years to the beginning of Christianity,” said Abi-Habib. “There are 12 to 15 million Coptic Christians in Egypt, which is equal the number of Christians in New York State, who do not have the same rights and privileges as the Muslims in the country. They also face harassment within the country and constant attacks from extremists like ISIS who continue to destroy their churches and homes. As a result, it has forced many of the Christians to leave the country.”

Father Tom Zain and John Abi-Habib preparing to meet with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in Washington.

Abi-Habib explained that in Iraq, the mix of Shiites, Kurds and Christians helped the country flourish but following the war, the number of Iraqi Christians in the country has dwindled from eight percent of the country’s population to less than one percent.

“There are now about 100,000 of them who fled the country and are being told they must return home because their visas have expired. But they fear persecution if they return. Some have been sitting in limbo for two years, not knowing what to do,” said Abi-Habib.

Rose met with Zain and Abi-Habib during their visit. “I — and all of America — should be extremely concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East,” said Rose. “They have endured discrimination and barbaric treatment by state and non-state actors, including ISIS who tried to break the Christian community in Iraq. Still, the community remained in Iraq and is committed to rebuilding their ancestral homeland, which is not only inspiring, but speaks to their strength and resiliency.”

Rose continued, “I’m staunchly opposed to any and all discrimination based on religious beliefs, whether here at home or around the world. It’s time for America to once again be a leader in protecting religious liberty. I’m thankful that my constituents are fighting for the rights of their fellow Christians and other religious minorities in other countries, and look forward to working together with them over the coming years.”

According to Abi-Habib, this year the IDC thanked and honored 10 people, eight congressmembers and two senators, for being champions of the cause.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America; John Abi-Habib and Father Tom Zain with a representative from Sen. Chuck Schumer’s office.

“Sen. Cory Booker from New Jersey was one of the champions and now we are hoping that this year we will have someone from New York on board,” said Abi-Habib. “That’s why we visited Senators Schumer and Gillibrand and Congressmembers Rose and Maloney.”

Rose, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, said that he was willing to support the resolutions.

“As we look at the story of what has happened to the Christian population in the Middle East it fills you with sorrow and horror,” he told this paper. “We have got to do something for those who are persecuted because of their religion.”

John Abi-Habib and Father Tom Zain meeting with Max Rose and his staff in Washington.

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