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Pence, persecuted Middle Eastern Christians need your platform

Pence, persecuted Middle Eastern Christians need your platform
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Vice President Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceNorth Korea canceled secret meeting with Pence at Olympics Judicial order in Flynn case prompts new round of scrutiny The CIA may need to call White House to clarify Russia meddling MORE’s first visit to Israel and Egypt in mid-December will provide an urgent opportunity to put a global spotlight on both the genocide of Christians and the persecution of religious minorities in the Middle East.

Over the past 12 months alone, the Islamic State has killed and wounded hundreds of Egypt’s Christian Copts, the largest Christian group in the Middle East, in a series of church and bus bombings. These killings are part of a strategy by ISIS and other terrorist groups to destabilize Egypt, one of the Arab world’s most populous countries, by stirring sectarian conflict.

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The world witnessed the horror of this barbarous and evil tactic on November 24th, when militants bombed and opened fire on a mosque in the Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 305 Sufi Muslims — whose sect ISIS considers heretical — and wounding 128 more. This slaughter is now considered the deadliest terror attack in Egypt’s modern history.

During his tour, Pence will address the Israeli Knesset and meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to discuss U.S.-Egypt cooperation on security issues. But another important priority will be meetings with government and religious leaders to talk about protecting religious minorities not just in Egypt but in the broader Middle East, where in many areas the situation is even more dire, especially for Christians.

In Iraq, the Christian population was once as high as 1.5 million. But forced migration, murders and kidnappings by ISIS have reduced the community to fewer than 200,000.

And the retreat of ISIS from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria in no way means that Mideast Christians will survive. Driven from their homes, many Christian refugees remain huddled in tents in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. Many displaced Christians refuse to enter U.N. refugee camps, fearing persecution by their largely Muslim inhabitants. Unless we act in a concerted and sustained fashion now, the Middle East’s Christian communities could disappear entirely from their ancient homelands within the next 10 years.

With the exception of limited emergency funding from the government of Hungary, all humanitarian relief for Middle East Christians has come entirely from faith-based charities. Nations must act immediately to make sure aid gets to persecuted religious minorities faster and more directly. They should consider following the United States' lead, as announced by Pence in October, by looking beyond the United Nations and giving directly to the faith-based groups that are best equipped to help Middle East Christians.

It is critical that the U.S. Congress back up Pence’s announcement with legislation that codifies this strategy. The House of Representatives unanimously passed The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) last June, which would support the transfer of U.S. government funds to faith-based and other groups carrying out humanitarian relief  and reconstruction work among the Christian minorities in both Iraq and Syria.

The bill also seeks to protect Mideast Christians by bringing their attackers to justice. It calls upon the State Department to support war crimes investigations against perpetrators, while directing the Justice Department to prosecute their atrocities when U.S. jurisdiction applies. And it instructs the U.S. Secretary of State to encourage other countries to supply identifying information about suspects to shared databases.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Senate has sat on the House’s bill for six months without bringing it before a vote. There is no more time to waste. The Senate must vote now, because too many precious lives hang in the balance.

Along with vital funding, hard decisions must be made about establishing and safeguarding the security of Mideast Christians’ security who return to their homes. Peacekeeping forces may be needed to guarantee their safety. Middle East nations must codify religious protections and freedoms into law. All options should be on the table, include the possibility of establishing an autonomous Christian region in the north of Iraq.

Keeping Middle East Christians safe also means humane refugee policies for those who have already escaped. We cannot allow them to wither indefinitely inside camps or be deported to their countries of origin if it puts their lives in danger. The United States should reverse its decision to deport 1,400 nonviolent Iraqi Chaldean Catholics. Countries such as the United Kingdom have accepted far too few Middle East Christian refugees, another cause for alarm. Western nations must open their doors to those whose best option for survival is leaving their homelands.

As we approach Mike Pence’s visit to Egypt and the one-year anniversary of the December 11th ISIS church bombing in Cairo that killed 25 Christians, urgent and relentless action is required to ensure that Christianity can return to its birthplace and once again flourish there.

Cécilia Attias, the former first lady of France, is founder of the Cécilia Attias Foundation for Women and senior vice president for public affairs of Richard Attias & Associates. She is an ardent champion of women’s equality and human rights worldwide. In 2007, she successfully negotiated with Libyan General Muammar Ghadaffi for the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor imprisoned on Libya's death row.