Mideast Christian advocates call for safe zones in Syria

Though mainstream media is relatively silent when it comes to the situation in the Middle East, a very real threat still looms overseas, one that continues to affect millions of lives.

The Christian advocacy group In Defense of Christians (IDC) is calling on the citizens of America to get in touch with their senators and urge them to cosponsor House Resolution 252, which would establish safe zones for refugees fleeing from the civil war in Syria and support the stability of Lebanon, which is hosting more refugees proportionally than any country in the world, according to a statement by IDC.

In an email sent out following a visit to the White House May 6, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Parish and secretary general for the IDC Religious Advisory Board, Father Andre Mahanna, asked Colorado citizens to lead the charge in supporting H. Res 252.

“Let Colorado lead, in a non-partisan way, to stand for what is right and just, for what is merciful and hopeful,” Father Mahanna wrote. “Stand for Lebanon, the final resort in the Middle East and Africa for Christians and for religious freedom.”

Father Mahanna led a small group representing the Apostolic Union of the Clergy and Laity and the Apostolate of Our Lady of Hope to meet with and educate legislators about Christian persecution in the Middle East and the need for the respect of religious freedom.

Father Mahanna was also granted an audience with President Donald Trump, who that day signed an executive order in support of religious freedom. In his email, Father Mahanna touched on the upcoming meeting between President Trump and Pope Francis and shared that Pope Francis intends on speaking with the president about Lebanon and its crucial role in the Middle East.

Father Andre Mahanna poses with President Donald Trump for a picture during a visit to Washington D.C. May 6. Father Mahanna spoke with President Trump about the situation in the Middle East. (Photo provided)

“Lebanon, with all its dynamics of rich and unique religious structure, can help stop terrorism, religious violence, persecution and social injustices,” Father Mahanna wrote of the region, where he himself was born and raised.

The ongoing civil war in Syria has displaced millions of people from their homes, forcing them to seek refuge in nearby countries. Lebanon has received more than 1,500,000 refugees from Syria in the years the civil war has raged on, saving countless lives from certain death. The country is also home to the highest percentage of Christians in the Middle East, making it a “unique multi-confessional society and model of pluralism in the region,” IDC’s statement said.

Due to the large influx of refugees Lebanon is receiving from Syria, the country “risks descending into sectarian chaos … which would be to the detriment of U.S. interests in the Middle East,” IDC said.

“Ending the Syrian conflict, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions, should be a foreign policy priority for the United States, and the establishment of safe zones would be an important step in that direction. These safe zones would protect Syria’s vulnerable civilian populations, and prevent them from having to leave their countries and live as refugees.”

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COMING UP: Colorado’s current, former bishops respond to executive order on refugees

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The current bishops of Colorado, as well as three of Denver’s former bishops — Archbishops Charles J. Chaput, José H. Gomez and Bishop James D. Conley — have responded to President Donald J. Trump’s recent executive orders regarding immigration and refugees.

In a joint statement issued Monday, Colorado’s bishops Samuel J. Aquila of Denver, Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs and Stephen J. Berg of Pueblo addressed President Trump’s executive order on refugees, which halted admissions to the U.S. from seven Muslim nations — Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Yemen and Libya — for up to 120 days.

“As bishops of Colorado, we believe in the human dignity of every life, including the lives of the refugee and immigrant,” the statement said. “We support the United State’s leadership on refugee protection, which both Democratic and Republican administrations have upheld for decades. It is our strong desire that the current administration will continue to support this much-needed refugee program while continuing to advance the safety and security of the rigorous vetting process that refugees must go through to enter the United States.”

Two of Denver’s former archbishops took similar stances on the order. Archbishop Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia served as archbishop of Denver from 1997-2011, and he wrote in a column published Tuesday that Catholics have a moral obligation to stand up for immigrants and refugees.

“There are few embodiments of the weak more needy or compelling than refugees,” he wrote, and continued that as a result of the order “…The human damage has been painfully bitter: dislocated families refugees and legal immigrants sent home or turned back, and intense fear in urban immigrant communities like Philadelphia.

“We’re living through an irrational and dangerous time in the life of the nation, and the blame rests on both sides of the political spectrum. But if our differences are intractable, the very last people who should bear the cost of the current civil war are refugees.”

Archbishop Gomez, current archbishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Denver’s former auxiliary bishop, penned a column Tuesday in which he said he was “pleased that one of the order will mean that our country will finally begin giving priority to helping Christians and other persecuted minorities,” but still expressed concern with the orders in question.

“Halting admissions of refugees for 90 or 120 days may not seem like a long time. But for a family fleeing a war-torn nation, or the violence of drug cartels, or warlords who force even children into armies — this could mean the difference between life and death,” Archbishop Gomez wrote. “Those moments in history that we are least proud of are moments when we closed our borders and our hearts to the sufferings of innocent people.

“Our Christian mission is clear — we are called to hear the cry of the poor and we are called to open our doors to the stranger who knocks and to seek the face of Christ who comes to us in the immigrant and the refugee.”

Additionally, Catholic Social Services of Southern Nebraska, which Bishop Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln serves on the board of, issued a statement of their own expressing concerns with the executive order.

“We believe the recent refugee-related executive order may cast undue suspicion on our neighbors who have already fled persecution and arrived in the United States, and cause undue hardship on our brothers and sisters who are living in desperate situations around the world,” the statement said. “We believe this executive order, while it may have good intentions, is unnecessary and we pray it will be lifted at the earliest possible moment.”

(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)