by William M. Leubscher

Chicago Catholic Examiner
February 18, 2012

If you’re like most Chicagoans, you may remember a passing story about an attack on an Iraqi Church last fall. The mainstream media didn’t dwell on the details much.  On October 31, 2011, an al-Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq, attacked a church in Baghdad, killing 58 people and wounding another 78. Gunmen took around 52 hostages during the Sunday services and both hostages and police were killed, until Iraq security forces stormed the church. “Chaldean Church Attacked by Terroristsdidn’t mean much to American ears. Many of us have never heard of a “Chaldean”. Perhaps the carnage would have hit home a little more personally, if Chicago’s Catholic community was aware that the Chaldeans are fellow Catholics.

Sadly, the assault on Our Lady of Salvation during their Sunday Mass is just one of countless examples of the persecutions of Christians in the middle east, many of whom belong to historic churches that trace their lineage back to the first century Christians and the apostles themselves. Iraq once had about 1.5 million Christians but the number has fallen sharply in recent years, and was estimated to less than 400,000 in 2011. Pope Benedict XVI condemned the attack and so did most Christian clerics in the region, but where are American Christians to stand with the most vulnerable members of our faith? It seems many Americans just don’t think about those things because we’re used to being in an open society where religious freedom is taken for granted.

Perhaps the most important reason why Christianity needs to be preserved in the middle east is that part of the world is the birthplace of our faith. Many of the most famous events in the Old Testament – and pivotal events in the life of Jesus – occurred in areas that are part of modern day Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, and Palestinian territories of Israel like the West Bank.  Christians have continually had a presence in those lands for far longer than we’ve had a presence in America.  While Christianity in the American Midwest dates back a few centuries, Christianity in the Mideast dates back two millennia.

On the plus side, there are people in Illinois who feel it’s time to step up to the plate and bring this matter to the public’s attention.  In March, there is a presentation coming to Chicagoland entitled Faith under Fire: The Global Threat to Religious Freedom. It is an all day conference sponsored by the Center for Security Policy in Washington, DC. This event is being held to discuss the plight of persecuted religious minorities in Islamic countries. Speakers include both religious leaders of different faith communities, and government officials. Included are key members of the U.S. Congress who will provide updates about legislation and what definitive action steps need to be taken to prevent future ethnic and religious cleansing, and potential genocide. Additionally, international and national policy experts will offer analysis of global threat to religious freedom, and what US citizens must understand regarding Islam and Sharialaw. By doing so, they will deliver recommendations in specific areas for the U.S. government to act to help these persecuted religious minorities.

Steps are being taken now to ensure this will be a high profile event for all Chicagoans. A request was made for U.S. Congressman Peter Roskam (IL-6) to be the keynote speaker during the luncheon portion of all the day conference, which has now been coordinated and confirmed. Congressman Roskam sat down with event organizers in his Washington, D.C. office in December 2011 to discuss his role in this event and to ensure it goes well.  As someone who has campaigned for Congressman Roskam in the past and heard him speak to supporters, I am certain his role in this event will be a memorable one.  Congressman Joe Walsh (IL-8), another outspoken Illinois official who was part of the 2010 freshman “tea party” class, has also confirmed his attendance as a speaker, and will be on panel in the afternoon.  Walsh is himself a Catholic and has been at odds with the Obama administration on many issues regarding religious freedom – most recently over the contraceptive mandate in America. An Assyrian radio station in Evanston covered news about this event in early February, and a 20 second commercial spot for the conference is also running on Illinois radio stations.  An E-Card has sent out via email with a detailed run down of the day’s events, and a printed version is also now available. The conference registration website is up and running, and The Center for Security Policy is offering a discount to those who sign up in advance for the conference.

Heads of religious leadership from Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, and Lebanese Maronite are invited to participate in this conference (most Christians in the middle east are Catholic or Orthodox, while Protestant Christianity is rare in that part of the world.)  Many of the attendees at this event will include members of the US military (active and retired), ACT for America members, Tea Party activists, political leaders, conservative Christian ministry organizations, and churches from throughout the Chicago metro area, including Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

So ,if you’re wondering – no, this event won’t be free. However, it appears to be well worth the price of admission.  The final details for the Conference state that “Faith under Fire: The Global Threat to Religious Freedom” taking place from 8:30am to 4:30pm on Saturday, March 10, 2012 at Crystal Palace Banquets in Mt. Prospect, Illinois. The Crystal Palace Banquet facility seats 600 people. The cost for this conference is $39/person, which includes a continental breakfast, 7 course luncheon and refreshments throughout the day. Tickets purchased by March 1, 2012 are $39/person; after the 1st of March, tickets are $45/person. (For directions, or any questions about park for the event, it is advised to call Crystal Palace Banquets at (847) 956-7400). Their address is:

Crystal Palace Banquets

1070 South Elmhurst Road

Mt. Prospect, IL 60056

Speakers for this event include such figures as:

  • Cynthia Farahat, Coptic Christian activist, and co-founder of the Egyptian Liberal Party (who  testified before a special committee of Congress chaired by Congressman Frank Wolf, on December 7, 2011)
  • Dr. Ashraf Ramelah, Founder and President of Voice of the Copts
  • Juliana Taimoorazy, Founder and Executive Director Iraqi Christian Relief Council
  •  Frank J. Gaffney, Jr., President and CEO of the Center for Security Policy
  • Hon. Fred Grandy, former US Congressman from Iowa and National Security Affairs Sr. Fellow, as well as Executive Vice-President at the Center for Security Policy
  • Clare Lopez, former CIA official for two decades, strategic policy and intelligence expert with a focus on Middle East, national defense, WMD, and counterterrorism issues. She will speak on specific areas of expertise include Islam and Iran.
  • Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and the author and editor of more than twenty books on religion and politics (he is Nina Shea’s counterpart at Hudson Institute).
  • U.S. Congressman Joe Walsh (IL-8), Catholic and tea party activist
  • U.S. Congressman Peter Roskam (IL-6), Keynote speaker

What I believe is most important when it comes to spreading the word about persecutions in the middle east is the way it impacts our society’s view of that part of the world. Many people woke up to reality after 9/11, only to see it die down in recent years as people began to feel that Islamic terrorists and other extremist groups just aren’t that threatening to religious freedom. Recently, much of Ron Paul’s foreign policy views have become popular and trendy in America society – a friend of mine recently posted a facebook graphic claiming that Islamic extremists only lash out at us when we bomb them first.  This is certainly news to Christians in the Middle East, who have been minding their own business for centuries only to see their way of life continually wiped out simply because they choose to exist alongside fundamentalists in another faith. The “Faith Under Fire” conference illustrates why a child-like posture of “they will be nice to us if we are nice to them” is a fantasy.  If it were true, Constantinople would still be a Christian city today, instead of the almost 100% Islamic city of Istanbul.

If you can’t afford it, maybe you know someone who can. What I would ask my faithful readers to do is at least stand with them in spirit by helping to get the word out about this event. Lent is coming up next week, and part of the biggest part of lent is charity and almsgiving.  As Catholics, we need to represent the persecuted Church and speak up for our Congressmen who are doing their part to bring relief to our persecuted brothers and sisters abroad. Now is the time to put March 10 on your calendar and set aside time for this very important event.  “Faith under Fire: The Global Threat to Religious Freedom” promises to be a truly eye-opening Chicago-area conference on the worldwide crisis of religious persecution.

The website to learn more about this event is http://faithunderfireconference.org/  and you support relief efforts for persecuted Christians in the middle east by visiting http://www.iraqichristianrelief.org/donate.html.  March will be a time of penance for Chicago Catholics. Will you be doing your part to set the example?

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