More than 50 Members of Congress Attended IDC's Convention to Address the Persecution of Christians, Other Minorities in the Middle East

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Former Attorney General John Ashcroft, Pope Francis' Envoy to the U.S., and Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Ashur Eskrya Also Attended the Convention, Where Members of Congress Announced Critical Legislation

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More than 50 Members of Congress attended In Defense of Christians'  international convention, which concluded Friday and addressed human rights and foreign policy concerns in the Middle East, with an emphasis on the religious persecution of Christians and other ethno-religious minorities in the region. 

The three-day event, entitled "Beyond Genocide: Preserving the Future of Christianity in the Middle East", also garnered significant participation from political leaders, human rights experts, international activists and academics, to include former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Pope Francis' Apostolic Nuncio the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, human rights activist Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Ashur Eskyra.

In March, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. State Department declared the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) guilty of perpetrating genocide against Christians, Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in the territories under ISIS control. (This historic moment was the result of months of close, bi-partisan collaboration between In Defense of Christians (IDC), U.S. Rep. Fortenberry (R-NE), U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the Knights of Columbus and other activists, religious scholars and human rights experts.)

Now that the genocide designation has been made, the convention aimed to challenge American political leaders and to mobilize the American public to take the next steps towards protecting and preserving these communities. To that end, IDC and its partners can count some significant successes. During the convention, Members of Congress announced the introduction of critical legislation to address the protection and preservation of Middle Eastern Christians.

At the 7 September press conference that kicked off the three-day event, U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-IL),  announced his historic resolution, "The Coptic Churches Accountabilty Act",  stating, "Coptic Christians in Egypt are second class citizens, even though they are indigenous to the region."  The press conference was held at the National Press Club.

Trott recounted that after the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt in 2014, Coptic Christians experienced the worst violence the community had seen seen since the 14th century. Dozens of churches were destroyed. And although President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has pledged to restore the rights of the Copts, said Trott, the U.S. government should encourage this progress and hold the leadership of Egypt to account.

On September 9, U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-IL) introduced a bipartisan resolution confronting the ISIS genocide by calling for the creation of a Nineveh Plain Province in Iraq. He announced that he would be introducing the bill, entitled Resolution on a Nineveh Plain Province in Iraq, at IDC's National Advocacy Day, part of the three-day convention, which was held in the Capitol on September 8 and featured more than 35 Members of Congress.

"The re-securitization and revitalization of the Nineveh Plain, allowing the repatriation of those who had to flee" is one next step that must be taken in follow up to the genocide determination made by the United States and the international community, Fortenberry stated.

"The Nineveh Plain was once a thriving, pluralistic area of Iraq with a rich tapestry of religious and ethnic diversity," he continued. "This resolution, which follows on the Government of Iraq’s own initiative to create a province in the Nineveh Plain region, seeks to restore the ancestral homeland of so many suffering communities."

The resolution for the Nineveh Plain Province has been developed in joint partnership with In Defense of Christians, the Philos Project and the Institute for Global Engagement. Convention speaker Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett applauded these efforts.

"The vast majority of Americans know that our policies in the region have been inadequate, but jumping in without a vision is not a way ahead," said Lantos Swett. "Fortunately, we are presenting a vision today. It will need a commitment from the international community, which has to be led by the United States, but the vision you have presented today is real, concrete and sustainable. It will resonate with the American people because it makes sense."

Another piece of legislation hit the House floor on September 9. Congressman Richard Hanna (R-NY) introduced a bipartisan resolution highlighting the political and refugee crisis in Lebanon.The resolution, entitled Expressing the Sense of the House of Representatives on the Challenges Posed to Long-term Stability in Lebanon by the Conflict in Syria, also addresses the massive influx of refugees fleeing the conflict.

With approximately 1.5 million declared Syrian refugees and an additional half million undeclared, Lebanon is hosting more refugees proportionally than any country in the world. The refugee crisis has further depressed Lebanon's economy, which has a national debt of approximately 140 percent of its gross domestic product.

Congressmen announced the introduction of a number of other bills during the National Advocacy Day:
H.R. 5961 - Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2016 - sponsors Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), co-sponsors Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) 
H.R.4017 - Save Christians from Genocide Act - sponsor Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA), co-sponsors Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH), Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), Rep. John Duncan (R-TN), Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), Rep. Daniel Webster (R-FL), Rep Ted Poe (R-TX),  Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), Rep. Scott Austin (R-GA) and Rep. Mike Bishop (R-MI)
Restitution for the Victims of Genocide - sponsors Rep. Dan Donovan (R-NY), Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC) and Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD)

Pope Francis' Apostolic Nuncio the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre, celebrated the Ecumenical Prayer Service, which was held on the first day of the convention, and provided the blessing at the Solidarity Dinner, which was held on the second day. 

Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft keynoted the dinner, which was held at the Capitol Hill Club.

"When IDC was formed two years ago, I joined its board immediately," said Ashcroft. "I believe God's work is being done here... we have come together so that none should perish in the pursuit of freedom and liberty. And we should never be on the sideline when liberty is in question."

Ashcroft went on to thank IDC President Toufic Baaklini for inviting him to the evening and for allowing him to serve IDC. "I am not worthy, but I will put my oar in the water and pull along," he said.

During the dinner, IDC presented the Solidarity Award in Defense of Christians in the Middle East to Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson and to U.S. Representatives Eshoo and Jeff Fortenberry in honor of their tremendous work in getting the U.S. government to formally declare the genocide.

IDC's Policy and Awareness Symposium was held on the last day of the convention at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. IDC staff, human rights and policy experts, academics, journalist and religious activists participated in the following panels:
Genocide and Persecution: Past and Present
Preserving Christianity on the Nineveh Plain
Solutions to the Refugee and Political Crisis in Lebanon
During the first panel, Armen V. Sahakyan, board member of the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), described the Armenian genocide and the need for the U.S. to  officially recognize the crime and push ally Turkey to do so as well. 

"During the Armenian Genocide, which lasted from 1915 to 1923, Turkey slaughtered more than three million people, including Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Chaldeans and other minorities," said Sahakyan, who is the grandson of survivors of this genocide. "Turkey continues to deny this genocide. Is this the best we can do? I believe we can end the vicious cycle of genocide by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. The  U.S. and Turkey must recognize it. In doing so, Turkey will benefit and become a true beacon of democracy and reconciliation in the region."

The second panel focused on the need to establish a Nineveh Plain Province in northeastern Iraq once ISIS is rolled back from Mosul, which is expected in the coming months. Persecuted Christians, Yezidis and other ethno-religious minorities deserve to to return to their ancestral homelands in the Nineveh Plain, said the panelists,and a province which they administer themselves is one way to do this. 

 IDC Special Advisor on Iraq, Loay Mikhael, hails from the Nineveh Plain. 

"There is a lot happening behind the scenes and under the table between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), whose land borders the Nineveh Plain, and the Republic of Iraq. They are discussing what will happen in the region post-ISIS. Unfortunately, we the indigenous people are not part of this discussion."

Mikhael lauded the introduction of Fortenberry's bill, saying this "is a golden opportunity to secure safe passage and right of return of those who have fled the Nineveh Plain and to assure those who remain that they will have a say-so in the creation of the province. However, we are running of of time, as indigenous people are continuing to flee. If we wait too long and fall below the threshold of 300,000, the Iraqi government may come to us with the pretext that the Christian and Yezidi community is too small to administer the province." 

Nobel Peace Prize Nominee Ashur Eskra, who is president of the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq, said, "...the Iraqi government and KRG need to recognize that the Assyrian- Chaldean- and Syriac-Christians are indigenous, native people of Iraq, and we have rights therein."

During the third panel, leading experts discussed solutions to the refugee and political crisis in Lebanon, asking for U.S. and international support to return Syrian refugees to safe zones in Syria and for U.S. and international aid to address Lebanon's failing infrastructure, which is stretched to the breaking point from the influx of people fleeing the Syrian conflict.

Professor Alexis Mourkazel, former dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of the Holy Spirit, said "the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon threatens the social balance and foundations of Lebanese society. In a population of four million, one in four are Syrian Sunni refugees...the integration of these refugees in Lebanon can unbalance the delicate Shia, Sunni and Christian sectarian balance of our nation. Any supplementary pressure could launch a second civil war, which could generate more conflict, amplify existing conflict in the region."

"We have 350 displaced Syrian refugees per square mile in Lebanon," said IDC Board Member and President of INDEVCO Group, Neemat Frem. "In the United States, that would be the equivalent of 180 million refugees. Our infrastructure is already inadequate. We have six hours of blackout per day. Our road network is inadequate. Our water table is contaminated. Our schools are running night shifts to accommodate the 280,000 Syrian refugee students in our public schools."

The refugee crisis has further depressed the economy of Lebanon, which has a national debt of approximately 140 percent of the gross domestic product.

"We are talking about a disaster in the making," said Frem.

A list of convention speakers, participants and panelists  can be found here.

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ABOUT THE CONVENTION
IDC's third annual convention, entitled "Beyond Genocide: Preserving the Future of Christianity in the Middle East", is being held in partnership with the Philos Project, the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) and the Institute for Global Engagement (IGE).

BACKGROUND ON IDC
This pro-activity with regards to protecting ancient Christian communities is par for the course for IDC. In March, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. State Department declared the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) guilty of perpetrating genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in the territories under ISIS control. This historic moment was the result of months of close, bi-partisan collaboration between In Defense of Christians (IDC), U.S. Rep. Fortenberry (R-NE), U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), the Knights of Columbus and other activists, religious scholars and human rights experts.

IDC believes that the future of the region depends on multi-ethnic, multi-religious, pluralistic societies, where Christians and other minorities can live in freedom and peace and contribute to the dialogues and debates of future governance structures.

For more detailed event information, please visit http://www.nac2016.org. For press inquiries and questions, please contact melissa@indefenseofchristians.org / 540-226-7215

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Melissa Nix
In Defense of Christians
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