The Lancaster Region of the Order of Malta designed and sponsored a two-day ecumenical conference October 22-23 on Persecuted Christians: Saving Christianity in the Middle East, bringing together a wide array of Christian service groups and experts on the affairs of that region.
The first day’s program featured author and chairman of the Papal relief agency Aid to the Church in Need (USA), George Marlin, whose book Christian Persecutions in the Middle East – A 21st Century Tragedy was just published. The evening’s second keynote speaker was Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Maronite rite of the Catholic Church, a rite rooted in Lebanon and Syria. Bishop Mansour’s diocese is the Eastern half of the United States and he is a frequent visitor to the Near East and a leader in the organizations bringing together ecumenically churches of the East.
Mr. Marlin described the state of affairs in the troubled region and addressed what government was and was not doing to help. Bishop Mansour addressed the humanitarian need and what Christians here could do to assist in addition to prayerful support. Both speakers minced no words addressing the threat that ISIS presents not only to Christian (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) but also not non-Christian minorities. More detailed information in handouts on the plight in the Near East were presented to attendees, including demographic data, special prayers, further reading recommendations, descriptions of well-regarded relief agencies to whom contributions could be made.
The first evening ended with an ecumenical night prayer service for the almost 400 attendees, commencing with choral chant and individual prayer offerings by Greek Orthodox, Episcopal, Evangelical and Mennonite clergy for all the persecuted. Bishop Ronald Gainer of the Harrisburg Diocese concluded the evening by leading the group in Compline. The evening’s free-will collection, which drew exceptionally generous support running into the thousands of dollars, will be shared between Catholic and Protestant relief agencies for their Middle East work.
A symposium on the second day brought together internationally known experts from the fields of relief, diplomacy, theology and pastoral care. In addition to Bishop Mansour, who acted as moderator, panelists included Michael La Civita, Communications Director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association who gave a country-by-country update on the state of persecution and offered concrete stories of individuals who were caught in this maelstrom of war and suffering. He was followed by Dr. Alain Epp Weaver, Director of Strategic Planning for the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), who has worked for more than 11 years in the Middle East. He went further into the operation of the relief effort and described how MCC, like the Catholic relief agencies, cares for the sick and displaced regardless of religion. He stressed how the non-sectarian offer of aid resulted in mutual concern between large segments of the Muslim population and the Christian communities.
The third panelist was Dr. Thomas Farr who was the first head of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Religious Freedom and now head of the Religious Freedom Program at the Berkley Center of Georgetown University. Dr. Farr reviewed U.S. policy – and perceived lack of it – toward the religious persecution in the Middle East and cataloged steps that have been proposed to deal with ISIS and the displacement of large number of Christians across the region as the result of the Syrian civil war.
Professor John Farina spoke on a theological plane relating St Augustine’s works on the City of Man and the City of God to the current situation and how this is relevant to coming to terms with it. There was a lively Q&A with the audience and among the panelists themselves.
Federal Association President Margaret Melady, Executive Director Michael Stankewicz and Fra’ James-Michael Von Strobel were among the audience that included clergy and lay people from a wide range of Christian denominations.