WASHINGTON — Franklin Graham, president of the humanitarian organization Samaritan’s Purse, urged fellow Christians to struggle against a “Christian genocide” that he says has killed in greater numbers than most believers can fathom.
Graham, who has been criticized by some evangelicals for calling Islam “evil” and for portraying President Trump as aligned with the Christian church, spoke Wednesday (May 10) at the opening of the first ever World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, a conference aimed at highlighting an issue many feel is ignored by politicians and the media.
“I am sure the number of Christians who are in prison or martyred each year would stagger our mind if we really knew what the total number really was. And it would send us to our knees in sorrow and in prayer,” Graham told conference participants.
The nonprofit Christian organization Open Doors — which tracks Christian persecution globally, and the increasing number of Middle Eastern Christians who seek safety outside their homelands — estimates that on average every month 322 Christians are martyred for their faith, 214 churches and Christian properties are destroyed and another 772 forms of violence are committed against Christians (beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests and forced marriages, etc.).
A study from the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) puts the number of Christians martyred much higher. The report released in January 2017 concluded that 90,000 Christians were killed for their beliefs worldwide in 2016.
Genocide is both a moral and legal term, used only a handful of times in U.S. history. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry applied the label in 2016 to the killings of Christians, Shiite Muslims and Yazidis by the group known as the Islamic State.
But some political leaders and bodies hesitate with the term, because of the specificity of the definition and because its use obligates intervention.
Graham described violence against Christians in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere as part of a larger, global antagonism toward the faith.
“Far more widespread, however, is the discrimination and open hostility that millions of believers encounter every day because of their loyalty to Jesus,” Graham, 64, told the audience of about 600 Christians from a variety of denominations and countries.
“In the name of tolerance, Christians are often treated with intolerance because they stand for moral purity and they stand for God’s truth. In the name of patriotism, Christians are often treated as unpatriotic because they follow a higher authority, almighty God.”
Vice President Mike Pence also spoke at the conference, which continues through May 13.
Pence reassured the Christian leaders that the White House wants to focus more attention on the plight of persecuted Christians.
“Across the wider world, the Christian faith is under siege,” said Pence in his address to the crowd. “Throughout the world, no people of faith today face greater hostility or hatred than the followers of Christ.”
Pence said that extremist groups are seeking to stamp out all religions that are not their own specifically pointing to al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, the Taliban and ISIS.
“I believe ISIS is guilty of nothing short of genocide against people of the Christian faith, and it is time the world called it by name,” said Pence.
He said that in times of persecution, history records that the church has prospered and grown.
“Know that America stands with you and will labor alongside,” Pence said. “But be confident because in the midst of it all, He knows the plans He has for us.”
Graham stated that Pence’s presence at the conference was a “testament to President Trump’s tangible commitment to America’s role as a beacon of light and liberty to inspire the world.”
Graham and other speakers noted the diversity of Christians assembled, with contingents of Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox.
Pope Francis’ representative in the U.S. expressed the pontiff’s hopes for the conference. Christians have their differences, said Apostolic Nuncio (ambassador) Christophe Pierre, but they must unite to defend the persecuted among them because “peace triumphs through solidarity.”
Also speaking at the opening of the summit: Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and the Rev. Mouneer Hanna Anis, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Egypt, who stressed that Christians have shown love to the killers of their relatives.
“The forgiveness that has been expressed by families of martyrs is the most powerful witness in the face of terrorism,” he said.
Forgiveness and Christ’s call to love one’s enemies were invoked during the evening far more than Islamic militants were blamed for the sufferings of Christians. But Graham, at one point in his 25-minute speech, presented Islamists as threats to Christians globally.
He said the Islamic State fighters who beheaded Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach in 2015 had then promised to conquer Rome.
“This threat to Rome was not just a threat to the Roman Catholic Church but to all Christians everywhere,” Graham said.
The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association sponsored the gathering which was held at a historic, downtown Washington hotel.
— Article adapted from RNS story written by Lauren Markoe.