US Vice-President Mike Pence has said that the Trump administration is committed “to defend[ing] Christians, and those of all faiths, whose freedom of religion is threatened”.
He was speaking on the first day of the World Summit In Defence of Persecuted Christians in Washington DC, which has been organised by Franklin Graham and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
Greeting the 600 or so conference delegates, many of them people who have personally suffered for their faith, as “brothers and sisters”, he assured them that the US “would stand with them”.
His audience included church leaders such as Iraqi Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Baghdad during the Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the chaos that followed, Fr. Bazi was kidnapped and held for nine days by Shi’ite militiamen, during which he was tortured.
Fr. Bazi later moved to Erbil, where he has been involved in caring for minority faith groups displaced by Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul and the Nineveh Plains.
Mr. Pence, who backed the 2003 invasion, said he found it “deeply humbling to stand in front of such men and women”, naming some of them, such as Fr. Bazi, aloud.
Asserting that “Christians, more than any other faith today, face persecution across the world” – a fact that another speaker noted “fails to be recognised enough by governments and international institutions” – Pence, an Evangelical Christian, recounted a story against himself.
“In 2004, soon after the end of the first phase of the conflict [in Iraq], it was my first time overseas and in that part of the world. My delegation met political and religious leaders. I saw the local imam standing there in his traditional apparel, and then the local bishop arrived.
“The two men embraced warmly, and my interpreter explained they were asking after each other’s families.
“I turned to the State Department official who was travelling with us and said – not knowing, I said – how long has there been a Christian church in al-Basrah? And he smiled and said, ‘About 1,500 years’.”
Citing the numbers quoted by the conference organisers: that 215 million Christians confront intimidation, imprisonment, forced conversion, abuse, assault, or worse, Mr Pence acknowledged that “nowhere is this onslaught against our faith more evident than in the very ancient land where Christianity was born”.
The places where the Gospel was “first uttered and embraced,” he said, “are often the targets of unspeakable atrocity”.
He gave the example of the two bombs exploded in churches in Egypt during Palm Sunday celebrations, adding: “A day of hope was transformed into tragedy.”
Pence promised his hearers, “We’re with you, we stand with you”. In Iraq, he said: “At the hands of extremists, we’ve actually seen monasteries demolished, priests and monks beheaded, and the two-millennia-old Christian tradition in Mosul virtually extinguished overnight.”
He said that Mr. Trump viewed the perpetrators of these acts as “radical Islamic terrorists”. His predecessor Barack Obama shied away from using such a term, arguing that it unfairly tarnished Muslims.
Mr. Pence used the term “genocide” to describe Islamic State’s actions against Iraqi and Syrian Christians. He said: “I believe ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide against people of the Christian faith, and it is time the world called it by name.” The use of the term “genocide” has a particular force and meaning, and, if declared by the UN, requires states to act. Former Secretary of State John Kerry also used the term in relation to IS while in office.
Referring to other nations, Mr. Pence went on: “From Al-Qaeda to Al-Shabaab, from Boko Haram to the Taliban, these extremist groups seek to stamp out all religions that are not their own, or even a version of their own that they approve. And believers from every background have suffered grievously at their hands. And this summit is about calling the attention of the world to those tragic circumstances.”
Mr. Pence continued: “America stands with those who are targeted and tormented for their belief, whether they’re Christian, Yazidi, Druzes, Shia, Sunni, or any other creed. The President’s commitment to protecting people of faith also will not end with the elimination of ISIS or the eradication of terror.”
The Vice-President ended by emphasising the scale and range of religious persecution in today’s world, and briefly acknowledged that governments sometimes play a crucial role in stoking up animosity between different faith communities. “Too many nations let the mob trample on the rights of the minority. Still more prefer the coercion of the state to conviction of the soul.” He said that limitations placed on people of belief included blasphemy laws and building codes, as well as violence and death.
“As history attests, persecution of one faith is ultimately the persecution of all faiths,” he said.