Nermien Riad, the executive director of Coptic Orphans, speaks during an Oct. 25 panel discussion at the annual In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington. The panel of policy experts discussed ways to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East by protecting religious minorities.
Nermien Riad, the executive director of Coptic Orphans, speaks during an Oct. 25 panel discussion at the annual In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington. The panel of policy experts discussed ways to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East by protecting religious minorities.

During the second day of the 2017 In Defense of Christians Summit in Washington, policy experts gathered on Oct. 25 to discuss how to advance U.S. interests in the Middle East by protecting religious minorities.

Nermien Riad, the executive director of Coptic Orphans, spoke about the attacks against Coptic Christians in Egypt, which she said have been steadily happening since the 1970s. Since 2012, there have been 546 sectarian attacks on the homes, businesses and churches of Coptic Christians there.

“If ever there was a time to collectively support the largest remaining Christian population in the Middle East, it is now,” she said.

In addition to persecution, Coptic Christians are being discriminated against in other ways, such as omitting them from the most recent census and from history lessons in schools, Riad said, adding that they also face restrictions upon how they can build and maintain their churches,

These conditions, along with the brutal killings of Christians – such as a priest who two weeks ago had his throat slit and a cross carved into his forehead as he was walking down the street – have led to the mass migration of Coptic Christians out of Egypt, with about 20 percent of them now living outside of the country.

Such large numbers of Coptic Christians have migrated to the United States that Riad said people have started to joke that the church’s leader, who they refer to as the “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria” will start being called the “Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, Virginia.”

“While benefits of immigration are good for those who immigrate, it is really detrimental for those in the homeland,” said Riad, noting that the country loses the talents of those who leave. “…We mourn for our homeland Egypt who robbed herself of the benefits of her own people.”

Iraq has gone through a similar problem of Christians leaving the country, which Loay Mikhael warned is the beginning of the religion’s extinction in the country. Before 2003, the country had more than 1 million Christians living there, and now only has about 200,000, said Mikhael, who is the head of the foreign relations committee of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council. He called for increased U.S. protection of Christians in Iraq.

l which was a co-sponsor of the event, said often when he is discussing the need to protect Christians in the Middle East, people will tell him that they care about Christians, but they don’t know what the United States can do about it, since another invasion of Iraq is unlikely.

“Americans do care in principle about Christians, because most Americans are Christian,” said Nicholson. “…It is embedded within our Declaration and Constitution that human beings matter, and we care from a place of moral virtue.”

Nicholson said he thinks part of the problem is that the United States lacks an overarching idea or policy to handle the situation, which leaves people at a loss of what to do. He suggests that the U.S. government should create a task force to reframe the protection of Christians in the Middle East under the mission of building, maintaining, and strengthening pluralistic societies.

“The Middle East has historically been a mosaic, and it’s been its best when it has been very diverse and pluralistic,” he explained.

Pluralistic societies that contain Christians tend to be more moderate, Nicholson noted. Christians in those societies make a “very tangible contribution,” being some of the most educated and wealthy people, he added.

“The Middle East without Christians is not going to be a safer, freer region,” Nicholson said.

Stephen Hollingshead, the managing director of the Safe Haven Project, said the main work he does in northern Iraq involves the creation of “safe economic zones,” where “security fosters productivity.” The Safe Haven Project, which was launched by In Defense of Christians, aims to help persecuted Christian communities in the Middle East recover self-sufficiency by encouraging actors, investors, and refugees to create jobs and economic opportunity in the Nineveh Plain.

“You can’t have an economy if you don’t have security,” said Hollingshead. “People work because they have a reasonable expectation that they will reap the rewards of their labor.” If people do not have property rights, then they will not have motivation to do that, he added.

Andrew Walther, the vice president of communications and strategic planning for the Knights of Columbus, noted that what began as ISIS attacking minorities in areas under its own control escalated to attacks elsewhere, and turned into a global threat, making it in the United States’ interest to stabilize the region.

But aside from national interest, “these Christian minorities deserve support on a fundamental level,” said Walther.

Noting how the Bill of Rights includes freedom of religion, Walther said, “This has not only legal implications within our own borders, it has moral implications beyond them.”

“When America speaks with moral clarity on religious freedom and takes humanitarian action, it is good for the world and good for America’s standing in the world,” he said.