By Constantine S. Sirigos
WASHINGTON, DC – Christmas is coming all over the world, but in the lands where Christ was born and launched his ministry of peace and love, security and survival, not shopping lists are uppermost on minds of the faithful. Recognizing that Christendom and secular institutions cannot watch idly as Christians are attacked in the Middle East, the 3rd Archon International Conference on Religious Freedom being held December 4-6 in Washington, DC will focus on “Persecution of Christians in the Holy Lands and the Middle East: Consequences and Solutions.”
The Order of St. Andrew – Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, under the leadership of Archbishop Demetrios, will gather together top government officials and senior religious leaders from around the world to help bring an end to the persecution.
Follow up plans were a priority during the planning sessions, and even the receptions and dinners will play important roles in stimulating cooperation among scholars, religious leaders, policy makers, and the media. “The Capital Hill luncheon will feature influential Senators Ben Cardin and Senator Chris Smith,” Dr. Anthony Limberakis, National Commander for the Order of St. Andrew, told The National Herald.
The December 6 luncheon at the Newseum is sponsored by AHEPA, whose Supreme President, Carl Hollister, said “AHEPA is proud to support the Archons and to be a sponsor of the conference, which will shine a much-needed spotlight on the persecution of Christians, especially in the Middle East…and the plight of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is a universal issue of fundamental human rights and religious freedom.”
The conference is a strong response to the question, heard often in our increasingly chaotic times but often spoken in exasperation and cynicism – “what can we do about it?”
One purpose of the conference is to spotlight the seriousness of a crisis that is too far from our minds until blood-stained images appearing digitally or in print shock and outrage, only to soon become all but forgotten again.
The happenings constitute some of the worst religious persecutions in history and the matter does not begin and end with the death of more than 90,000 Christians around the world in recent years.
Open Doors USA, a California-based non-profit that tracks Christian persecution, points out that millions of Christians face interrogation, arrest, torture, and/or death because of their religious convictions and cultural or ethnic identification. The U.S. State Department reports that Christians face persecution in more than 60 countries. Pew Research notes that between 2007 and 2014, Christians have been targeted for harassment in more countries than any other religious groups.
Archbishop Demetrios is leading the call to prayer and action. “The Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate stand in solidarity with persecuted Christians throughout the world…Our prayers and actions on behalf of the threatened, oppressed or persecuted Christians are accompanied by our safe and sure faith in our God, a God of love, justice and power who is under all circumstances present in our life.”
The conference’s four session include “History of the Christian Church.” “Persecution of Christians and Possible Solutions,” “Freedoms of Religion and the Press,” and “Sacred Sites and Property Rights.” The later often overlooked issue is vital to the survival of communities and is the focus of continuous efforts by Judge and Archon Theodore Bozonelis The panel discussion will be moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, past Federal Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Prodromou told TNH, “The conference offers a chance to move beyond standard narratives and stale policies…Most policy analyses and media treatments tend to highlight the calamitous effects on Christians related to the wars in Iraq and Syria, but the decline of Mideast Christianity has a history at least as long as the establishment of states in the region. Our panel on property rights and sacred sites in the Middle East, shows how states have used discriminatory property regimes to economically strangle Christian communities.”
Top government officials, human rights activists, academics, and religious leaders will be there, including Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans (Syriacs), Kristina Arriaga de Bucholz of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and Fox News Chief Religion Correspondent Lauren Green.
Professor George Demacopoulos, Co-Director of Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center, explained that the first session provides the historical context through very well respected senior scholars to give various perspective” in four of the main ethnic communities and Christian traditions in the Middle East: Greek, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac. “The other three panels will be focused on calls to action and make specific policy recommendations,” he added.
There is a humanitarian crisis that must be addressed, but Demacopoulos adds that the issue should also concern us because “it cuts to the survival of Christianity in the very place where it emerged. In the modern world we think of Christianity as a European or American thing – Christianity is a Middle Eastern thing…by losing sight of that we don’t understand our own faith tradition.” He noted that the majority of Christians there are non-Chalcedonian Coptic Christians.
“We have worked very hard on this,” Dr. Limberakis said, “and we hope it will shed light an inspire people and focus our government’s attention on this terrible situations…The officers of the Order and its spiritual advisor, Protopresbyter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Father Alexander Karloutos, have been very involved.” He highlighted the efforts of conference chairman Mike Manatos, President of Manatos and Manatos, a top public policy consulting firm in Washington, DC, Andrew Economou, attorney and professor of Byzantine Studies, Demacopoulos and Prodromou.
Manatos, whose family has been involved in U.S. policy in Washington, DC for more than 80 years,” told TNH “I’m honored to be Chair of a conference” – the third Archon conference on religious freedom after Brussels in 2010 and Berlin in 2013 – “that tries to enlist the power and influence of the U.S. government to address a very serious issue…people are aware, but not to the degree” that the situation merits.
The average American does not know that persecuted groups have strong connections with communities in the U.S. “An important part of this is to put faces on this crisis and connect it to people in the U.S. of those faiths.” Manatos added, emphasizing there will be powerful policy makers in attendance, “We want to educate people but also create policy actions out of our conference.”
For more information visit archons.org.