- - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I was moved as Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Eastern Orthodox Church jointly visited the Greek island of Lesbos. As a third-generation Greek American and Orthodox Christian in Congress, I am honored to represent the unique priorities of constituents who hail from a variety of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. The pope’s message of hope struck a chord with me and many of my constituents.

“Wake us from the slumber of indifference, open our eyes to their suffering, and free us from the insensitivity born of worldly comfort and self-centeredness,” the pontiff proclaimed. As a member of the House International Religious Freedom Caucus, this call to action was not unfamiliar — it is something I continually strive to accomplish. Sometimes, however, it takes dire circumstances to awaken the soul to the inconceivable human suffering and religious persecution that continues today.

Refugees attempting to flee oppression and violence in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have created the most significant migration and refugee challenge since World War II. In the past year, the European Union has struggled with how to handle redistribution within and outside member countries. The EU has attempted a wide array of voluntary and mandatory relocation programs, and reached new levels of financial and management cooperation with countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The United States must do a better job facilitating cooperation with regional allies, including Arab nations close to the violence and oppression causing these refugees to flee. We must address the root of the problem, so the oppressed do not have to flee in hope of a brighter future. Pope Francis continued, “Inspire us, as nations, communities and individuals, to see that those who come to our shores are our brothers and sisters.”

Sadly, still in Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, people of faith are required to hide their religious affiliation. Religious minorities in some countries must legally identify as Muslim or face persecution. As a result, we see Christians and other religious minorities flee their ancestral homelands in record numbers. As Judaism celebrated its great Exodus from slavery and oppression last week, we take lessons from its story. Rabbis teach of redemption, careful preparation, self-examination and creation of a new ideal. Jews are encouraged every year to appreciate their religious freedom while recognizing the responsibility that freedom demands.

Our Founding Fathers knew the importance of this Exodus: Benjamin Franklin suggested the revolutionary motto, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” We cannot ignore the shackles that lie at the root of the mass migration west from strife; we must challenge ourselves to do more in the name of freedom and religious liberty.

Congress can do more by withholding foreign aid to countries that continue to oppress religious minorities. We can sanction regimes that violate the rule of law and cause ripple effects of asylum-seekers across continents. We must continue to condemn bad actors who destroy holy sites and historic places of worship for religious minorities. It is unconscionable that the lessons taught in the Bible so long ago are still at issue. The freedom of thought, conscience and religion are at the core of humanity and the foreign policy initiatives of our country. We must hold our allies to these standards of freedom, as we do ourselves.

I recently met with Sherzad Mamsani, the director of Jewish affairs in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of Religious Affairs. Mr. Sherzad’s position is not only the first formal representative of the Jewish religious minority within the Kurdish nation; it is the first such position in a region that expelled most of its Jewish population. He attained this post last fall thanks in large part to the efforts of the director of relations and religious coexistence for the Kurdistan Regional Government, Mariwan Naqshbandy. The Kurds now formally recognize eight religious minorities, giving them a voice and an avenue for official cooperation within government. Challenges remain, but I am encouraged by these successes and will continue to stand alongside persecuted Christians and other communities seeking greater freedom in Kurdistan and Iraq. This has not been a smooth ascent — attacks on Mr. Sherzad’s life and family persist, yet he knows his accomplishments will lead to a better life for his religious community and potentially serve as a beacon of hope to other religious minorities.

As Pope Francis concluded, “We hope that the world will heed these scenes of tragic and desperate need and respond in a way worthy of our common humanity.” I hope his words resonate across continents to touch the hearts and minds of those in power who subjugate people of faith trying to coexist peacefully. I heard his words here in Tarpon Springs, Fla. We heard his words on Capitol Hill. Religious freedom is inherent to all mankind, and we will not rest until there is no need for an Exodus again.

Gus Bilirakis is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida.

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