It was only a few years ago that American television screens were filled with images of ISIS terrorists beheading, crucifying, and setting Christians ablaze for their faith. Do you remember?
It was only a few years ago that ISIS terrorists began targeting Christian homes in Iraq with the Arabic “noon” sign (N) for Nazarene. Do you remember?
It was only a few years ago that ISIS terrorists told these same Christians, “You pay fidyah (a high tax no one could afford), convert or die.” Most died. Do you remember?
Two Catholic Christians – Toufic Baaklini and Andrew Doran – DO remember and they want you to remember too. In 2014, they formed an organization called In Defense of Christians. Their mission is to call on Christians of all denominations to unite and support their persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East.
“We are the voice of the voiceless – no matter who it is,” IDC President Toufic Baaklini told Father Mitch Pacwa on a recent episode of “EWTN Live,” http://bit.ly/EWTNLiveInDefenseOfChristians. This includes minorities of all faiths. Unfortunately, 80 percent of religious persecution in the world is against Christians, yet Baaklini says they have not had the support that some of the other faiths have enjoyed.
“The Shiite Muslims, they depend on Iran,” Baaklini said. “The Sunni Muslims, they depend on the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Christians, they always look to the West, and we need to support them. We need to support our brothers and sisters.”
To insure this is more than just talk – or even just a lot of publicity – Baaklini and Doran put together an advisory board of high-level officials and ecumenical religious leaders that reads like a who’s who of Christianity.
The Roman Catholic side includes New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez. But the board also includes Melkite and Maronite Catholics, the Orthodox Archbishop, well-known Evangelicals, and Lebanese American political figures such as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
Being Christians, the organization launched with an historic prayer service that included six patriarchs from the Middle East who prayed in the Aramaic, Latin, Syriac, and Armenian languages. “This was the first time they had prayed in one room in 600 years,” said IDC President Baaklini. These historic prayers powered the advocacy that immediately followed.
IDC’s first battle – getting genocide recognition for ISIS victims — was the hardest fought.
“When you say Christian, no one wants to talk about it,” Baaklini continued. “[A previous Administration] only wanted to designate the Yazidis [whose religion includes elements of many religions]. We had the Knights of Columbus on our side. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson is the best human being. He stood by us.
“The Knights usually don’t do work like this; even the USCCB had never done work like this. The KOC were unbelievable. They started the Stop the Christian Genocide campaign. They helped a lot to make people aware of it [by distributing pins, scarves and more with the “noon” for Nazarean symbol that so many people put on their Facebook profiles.]”
“We put a lot of pressure on Congress” to get an official declaration of genocide recognition for all ISIS victims – Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria. Accomplishing this “was a major victory for us” because this allowed monetary aid to follow.
While there are 15 million Coptic Christians in Egypt, who are citizens, Baaklini says they have no voice. “They cannot get high level jobs with the government, they can’t worship freely, they can’t fix their churches [which have been burned down].” A few months ago, President Trump met with the President of Egypt. “The first question he asked was: “How are you treating the Christian Coptics?”
During the IDC’s annual summit in 2017, Vice President Mike Pence announced a new Trump Administration policy to provide direct help to persecuted Christians and Yazidi victims of ISIS genocide.
“So far, they have given more than $300 million – now $360 or $370 million – in direct aid to Christians in the Middle East.” Baaklini said.
Baaklini says he thought it would take years for the promised money to make its way to the Middle East, but he said “a couple months later, the money started flowing in.”
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean all is well for Christians in Egypt. “A few weeks back, neighbors were burning Christian homes,” Baaklini said.
So IDC is now fighting to change the governor of the Egyptian province in which this happened or for the appointment of a Coptic co-governor to insure Christians are treated fairly.
IDC also helped put pressure on the Turkish government for Protestant Pastor Brunson’s release even though he did not know him. During the period that IDC was testifying before Congress, Baaklini says “[t]he Turkish government hacked our computers, phones, and put the Turkish flag on our website. We are not afraid.”
Baaklini, who is married with one college-age daughter, is not kidding. He frequently travels to the Middle East, even though he acknowledges that the only safe place for Christians is in Lebanon. “I know that I’m in danger, but nothing will stop me.”
He says his wife and daughter are supportive of his work, but the question remains: Why would this family put themselves in harm’s way for Christians in the Middle East?
To answer this question, Baaklini points to his family lineage. He has a great uncle whose descendants gave him more than 250 cousins. “He had a big family; he was Catholic,” Baaklini said, laughing. “He told his kids [about the persecution of Christians]. It’s happened with him, with me, with my dad, with my great grandparents. For 1,600 years, this has been happening.”
Enough is enough. Baaklini wants the persecution to end with his generation. He says: “We need to make sure the Christians of the West stand with their brothers and sisters.”
Most people don’t realize that 80 percent of the religious persecution in the world is against Christians. “Here in the U.S., we don’t feel it. Now, after the awareness and advocacy, people are understanding it better. If a Christian is hurt anywhere in the world, we should care.”