When the pope and the president first met a year and a half ago at the Vatican, a major topic of concern raised by Pope Francis was the need for cooperation between church and state, particularly with regard to the exercise of religious freedom.
On Wednesday we will witness another meeting between pope and president, this time on President Obama’s turf. While there will be warm discussions on areas of common concern, religious liberty is sure to be a contentious item on the agenda once again; events both domestically and internationally have ensured that.
Internationally, it’s not so much what the president has done, as what he has not done. It’s the deafening silence in the face of heart wrenching and barbaric persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Pope Francis is likely to raise this as a central issue in the private White House meeting on Wednesday, and again on Thursday when he addresses Congress.
Pope Francis does not mince words in describing the ethnic cleansing and persecution of Middle Eastern Christians, Yazidis and others, saying it is “genocide” and should be named as such. Mr. Obama and congressional leaders will hear a plea similar to one Francis delivered this summer, when he said, “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide — and I stress the word genocide — is taking place, and it must end.”
What else can it be called when the Islamic State brutally invades the cradle of Christianity, beheading, crucifying, terrorizing and selling women and girls into sexual slavery? In compelling testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee this Spring, an Iraqi nun named Sister Diana Momeka told of the horrors she witnesses as she fled Mosul: “ISIS’s plan is to evacuate the land of Christians and wipe the earth clean of any evidence that we ever existed.”
As former Rep. Frank Wolf, known as the “conscience of the Congress” for his work on this issue, has said, “What we’re seeing in Iraq and Syria today is genocide . I visited Iraq in January of this year going through villages to the front lines . I came back and asked, does this administration care? Does the Congress care?”
Pope Francis will be asking the same question — do we care? Some in Congress care deeply, and are leading a bipartisan effort to declare these atrocities to be genocide. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, are co-sponsoring a bipartisan resolution (H. Con. Res. 75) declaring that those who commit “atrocities against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities are committing ‘war crimes,’ ‘crimes against humanity,’ and ‘genocide.’” They are calling for the United States and the international community to end their “scandalous silence” in the face of this persecution, and for protection, humanitarian assistance and expedited refugee processing for these targeted populations. Mr. Fortenberry even traveled to Rome last month and presented the Holy Father a draft of this resolution.
Mr. Obama says he cares too, promising at the National Prayer Breakfast to “constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.”
On the domestic front, the mere planning of the papal visit has already served to highlight tensions. Making use of its home field advantage, the White House invited to the pope’s welcome ceremony activists who endorse policies that directly infringe upon the religious freedom of the Catholic Church. No matter the disregard for basic diplomatic protocol, or simple courtesy towards an honored guest.
Given the Holy Father’s emphasis on poverty, the White House might have invited nuns known for their selfless and joyful care of the indigent elderly, the Little Sisters of the Poor. That however, would have created an awkwardness of another kind, since Mr. Obama’s lawyers are currently fighting the Little Sisters in court to force them to facilitate contraceptive coverage in their health plans. The litany of this administration’s offenses against religious liberty goes well beyond the Obamacare mandate, and promises to intensify in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges same-sex marriage decision.
Perhaps this week’s meeting with Pope Francis will be an opportunity for Mr. Obama to recognize the gross incongruity between his words and actions. Miracles do happen.
• Maureen Malloy Ferguson is the senior policy advisor for The Catholic Association.