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Orthodox church in Oklahoma City considers joining group to aid Christians persecuted in the Middle East

Source: The Oklahoman

May 14, 2016

The Rev. John Salem was saddened to hear that one of his college classmates, a priest in Syria, had been murdered recently.

Salem, pastor of St. Elijah's Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, said he met his friend while they both attended university in Lebanon, and his fellow priest was killed while attempting to negotiate the release of a parishioner's sons.

"He was kidnapped and tortured and his body left at the parish gates," Salem said.

His colleague's murder is among the recent news reports of Christians being killed and persecuted in the Middle East, Salem said.

St. Elijah's may join an organization that is shedding light on such persecution, the Oklahoma City priest said.

Salem and members of his congregation recently met to learn more about In Defense of Christians, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization whose mission is to protect Christians in the Middle East.

Not a new problem

Church members learned that St. George Orthodox Christian Cathedral, their "sister church" or "mother cathedral" in Wichita, Kan., recently started an In Defense of Christians chapter, with the goal of helping their fellow Christians halfway around the world.

Salem said St. Elijah's is considering doing the same, because there is much interest among parishioners.

He told those gathered at a May 6 luncheon that Middle East Christians have been targets of religious persecution for many years, but recent incidents involving the ISIS terrorist group have brought these troubles to the forefront as Americans see glimpses of this persecution through news media reports.

"This is sadly something that is not new to us," Salem told the crowd.

"In a sense, we don't want to sound like we're sad sacks, but then you don't want to sit idly either."

Like Salem, the Rev. Paul O'Callaghan, dean of St. George Cathedral, said more and more Americans are becoming aware the plight of Christians in the Middle East with the rise of ISIS.

"People began to hear of people beheaded and executed, girls carried off and raped, people being turned out of their homes, merely for their faith in Jesus Christ," he said. "My parishioners began to say, 'What can we do?' ”

O'Callaghan said the parish's new In Defense of Christians chapter, a group already active in the Middle East, represents "the best road forward for us." He said about 80 people have joined the chapter.

Raising awareness

Both Salem and O'Callaghan said some Americans did not realize there are many Christians living in the Middle East until the reports of ISIS atrocities hit the news.

Ninar Keyrouz, director of media and communications for In Defense of Christians, said her organization is working to increase the American public's awareness of Christian persecution in the Middle East and give people ways they can help this group of believers.

Keyrouz told St. Elijah members that the organization started a little more than a year ago as a result of a summit that was ecumenical and politically diverse. She said the organization has established 10 chapters nationwide.

The group advocates for Christians in the Middle East and needs people involved with the chapters to be advocates as well, she said.

Keyrouz said local chapters can sign petitions asking their elected leaders to support legislation that would help Christians and other minorities vulnerable to violence in the Middle East.

Identifying genocide

She said In Defense of Christians believes Christian persecution in the Middle East amounts to genocide, and the organization would like to see many countries and the United Nations classify it as such.

She said the organization partnered with the Knights of Columbus to produce a 300-page report on Christian persecution in Iraq and Syria, "documenting that what is happening is actually genocide."

"When you are eradicating them, when you are destroying their culture, it is genocide," Keyrouz said.

She said the organization was gratified in March when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States has determined that actions by ISIS against Christians, along with Yazidis and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria, constitute genocide.

Keyrouz said one of In Defense of Christians' main goals is to provide safe havens for Middle Eastern Christians, and this mission is made less challenging when countries such as the U.S. provide specific aid to victims once genocide has been determined.

Keyrouz said local chapters may raise awareness by hosting movie nights where they screen documentaries that focus on the issue. She said they also may host ecumenical prayer services, adopt a Christian church in the Middle East, discuss the issue on social media or attend the In Defense of Christians convention set for September to learn more on the subject.

"It's always a challenge to get the story out," she said.

The Oklahoman

14 / 05 / 2016

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