Facing Global Persecution, Christian Leaders Urge U.S. For More Protection

May 12, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 6:17 pm
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When Donald Trump was campaigning, he often brought up the mistreatment of Christians. The Pew Research Center says no other faith group faces problems in so many countries. This week, Christian leaders from around the world gathered here in Washington to share their experiences. It was meant to be a big storytelling session, but as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, world politics were unavoidable.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: For Christians, persecution has been a theme of the faith experience since the time of Christ, something almost celebrated. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and the organizer of this week's conference, reminded the attendees that Jesus told his disciples they would suffer as a result of following him.

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FRANKLIN GRAHAM: The apostle Paul likewise warned everyone who wants to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. The apostle Peter stated, dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come upon you.

GJELTEN: And hundreds of Christians from more than a hundred countries came to the meeting with their persecution stories. Chung-Seong Kim defected from North Korea, considered by many the worst place of all to be a Christian, a place, he says through an interpreter, where only the ruling regime can be worshipped.

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CHUNG-SEONG KIM: (Through interpreter) For the North Koreans, our gods are three gods, Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. (Singing in Korean). And even we have songs that's praising and worshipping, idolizing the founding fathers of our country.

GJELTEN: In the Middle East, Christian communities that date to the time of Christ have been decimated. Of a million or more Christians in Iraq just 15 years ago, perhaps only 300,000 remain. War and Islamist attacks have taken a toll. Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest, was abducted and tortured for nine days before a ransom was paid. He wants people outside Iraq to know what it's like there.

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DOUGLAS BAZI: When ask me, why they kidnap you? What do you think - because maybe I look like Robert De Niro?

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BAZI: Of course because I'm Christian.

GJELTEN: For those who have devoted years to the work of defending beleaguered Christians, the summit was long overdue. Faith McDonnell is with the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

FAITH MCDONNELL: I've been to lots of conferences on the persecuted church, and usually they'll have one or two speakers. But to have people representing all the areas of the world that are under persecution, to hear from each other, is very significant.

GJELTEN: The variety of Christian denominations represented here, from Africa to Asia, meant also a variety of political perspectives. A leader of the Russian Orthodox Church went out of his way to praise Vladimir Putin. Arab Christians complain about Israeli policies. And Father Douglas Bazi's story from Iraq revealed that Christians who suffer at the hands of Muslims may have some prejudice toward Islam itself.

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BAZI: If someone here believe that Islam is the religion of peace, you need to see a doctor immediately because when they translated Islam means peace - completely wrong. It means submission, and you have to obey them. I born among them, and I know them.

GJELTEN: With such feelings, there's a danger that focusing narrowly on Christian suffering might actually promote conflict. Chris Seiple is a cofounder of the Institute for Global Engagement.

CHRIS SEIPLE: There's so many positive stories in centuries of Muslims and Christian living side by side. But if it does become political - and there's a concern at the conference, too, about that. There's a simple narrative that because President Donald Trump on the campaign trail called so much attention to persecuted Christians that this becomes not just a Republican issue but a Trump issue.

GJELTEN: Not good, Seiple says, because the Christian faith needs to transcend political divisions. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATATAT'S, "BUSTELO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.