U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers the keynote address during the second night of the annual In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington Oct. 25. (CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers the keynote address during the second night of the annual In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington Oct. 25. (CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)

Speaking at the Oct. 25 Solidarity Dinner, which was a part of the three-day In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington, Vice President Mike Pence promised that the United States would “always stand with people who are persecuted in their faith.”

Pence said President Donald Trump had asked him to attend the dinner, which was held at the J.W. Marriott in downtown Washington, because they both believe “American leadership is crucial to securing the future of Christians in the Middle East.”

Pence thanked all the religious leaders at the dinner for their witness of faith, saying, “The Bible tells us that ‘All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,’ and the flocks you shepherd are among the most persecuted in the world.”

Noting that the Christian population in Syria has been cut in half in the past six years, Pence said, “We can now see a future in many areas without the Christian faith,” but promised the people gathered at the dinner that “help is on the way.”

“We will not rest, we will not relent, until we hunt down and destroy ISIS at its source so it can no longer threaten our people or anyone who calls the Middle East home,” Pence said.

Noting that victory in combat is only half the battle for the people who live in the Middle East, Pence promised the United States would provide aid and comfort to those who have suffered, as well as ensuring that the governments that are rebuilding will respect their religious freedom.

“The right to worship according to dictates of our conscience is at the very heart of who we are as Americans; as men and women created in the image and likeness of God,” he said.

Pence announced that President Trump has ordered the State Department to stop funding “ineffective relief efforts” by the United Nations, who he said often deny funding requests of faith-based organizations who desire to help. Instead, the United States will give funds directly to persecuted communities through USAID.

“We stand with those who suffer for their faith because that is what America has always done,” he said. “The common bond of our humanity demands a strong response.”

In a statement, Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said, “The Knights of Columbus applauds Vice President Mike Pence’s announcement that the Trump Administration will begin providing aid directly to religious minority groups impacted by ISIS’ genocide.” Anderson noted that, “For almost two years, the K of C has warned that Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East have been falling through the cracks in the aid system, and has been urging the United States government to provide aid directly to genocide-targeted communities. We are pleased that tonight, the administration has promised to do just that.”

Pence concluded his remarks by reflecting on an experience he had when he visited Iraq in 2004 as a member of Congress, which he said made him believe “people in the Middle East have better days ahead.”

While he was there, he saw an encounter between a Muslim imam and a Christian bishop who embraced each other as the imam gave the bishop condolences about the passing of his mother.

“It was obvious to me that there was a strong connection between the two,” Pence said. “…In that moment I saw the beauty of what that part of the world has been for millennia. A place where believers of so many different backgrounds live together in peace and community, and I believe it can happen again.”

He believes that, he explained, “because I have faith.”

“I have faith in the good people of America…I have faith in those courageous believers in those ancient lands,” said Pence. “…I believe that He who said I will never leave you or forsake you never will...I truly believe that He himself will breathe new life on the community of Christ in that corner of the world where it all began.”

Other speakers at the event included Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Nebraska; Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Illinois; Pam Pryor, a representative of the State Department; Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, the Maronite patriarch of Antioch and all the East; His Beatitude Patriarch John X, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Antioch and all the East; and Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who spoke via a video message since he was out of town attending meetings in Rome.

“This is an effort to build bridges of understanding to allow all of us working together to deepen our appreciation of our own faiths and of others,” said Cardinal Wuerl. “…We are called not only to envision the new city of God, but actually to bring it about through acts of justice, peace, compassion and understanding.”

Cardinal Rai, who came to the summit from Lebanon, spoke about the 1.5 million refugees who have fled persecution to that country, and are “not living in proper conditions worthy of basic human dignity.”

“For their good and the good of the country they need to be welcomed back into their homelands,” he said.

The evening also included performances by Abeer Nehme, an internationally acclaimed Lebanese singer, who sang the Our Father in Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have taught it in.

Mother Olga, the founder of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, recalled how much she appreciated the solidarity of westerners as she grew up in Syria. It was that solidarity, along with “the gift of faith and the gift of prayer” that carried her through many wars, she said.

Mother Olga led the Hail Mary in three different languages, because she said, “the two oars of peace in the Middle East” are advocacy and prayer.

Later in the evening, Toufic Baaklini, the president of In Defense of Christians, presented Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, with the organization’s Cedars of God Award for his work in protecting persecuted religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East.

Smith was the author of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act, which was signed into action in December 2016, bolstering the State Department’s ability to advocate for religious freedom abroad. Recently, he sponsored the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, which the House passed unanimously on June 6. This bill would provide immediate humanitarian and reintegration assistance for Christians and other religious minorities who survived genocide.

Smith encouraged the people gathered, who on Oct. 26 are meeting with hundreds of government officials on Capital Hill, to urge the Senate to pass the bill now. President Trump has already agreed to sign it if it gets to his desk, Smith said.

Cardinal Rai also presented Smith with a medal recognizing his contribution to the Maronite Church. He presented the same award to Baaklini and Andrew Doran, the vice president and senior policy advisor of In Defense of Christians.

In his acceptance remarks, Smith – who is Catholic – said his work was motivated by the book Torture for Christ by Richard Wurmbrand, and by Jesus’s “powerful and unambiguous teaching” in Matthew 25, that “whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”

“Paradoxically, the Christians suffering persecution and even martyrdom… (they are) spiritual heroes on earth…and in heaven, but situationally, they are the least of these because of their circumstances,” he said.

Like Pence, Smith recalled an experience that had a large impact on him while he was visiting the Middle East. He visited a camp of 6,000 internally displaced people, and listened to stories of ISIS atrocities, murders, desecration of churches, and sexual assault of women and girls.

But he also gained hope as he listened to children singing Christmas carols and saw “impoverished Christians who are rich in faith,” he said. The biggest takeaway from the visit, he added, was how, “We heard people declare their love for God despite it all – of resilient Christians radiating Christ in hope, faith, and charity in those direst of circumstances.”

To close the evening, Baaklini shared how he had come to America as a young man fleeing violence in his homeland, and now believes that “America is the greatest country in the world.”

“Those born here will never appreciate the freedom the country offers as much as those who came here (to escape violence and persecution),” he said.

Addressing all those born in America, he encouraged them never to take it for granted, and said, “Don’t ever lose confidence in America.”


U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., second from right, receives the 2017 "Cedars of God" award during the In Defense of Christians Summit solidarity dinner Oct. 25 in Washington. Also pictured are Toufic Baaklini, president of In Defense of Christians; Lebanese Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch; and Andrew Doran, vice president and senior policy adviser for In Defense of Christians. (CS photo by Jaclyn Lippelmann)