Omission drew a rebuff from a leading Republican senator.
President Obama did not mention the plight of Middle-East Christians during a talk at the annual National Prayer Breakfast Thursday. Although Obama mentioned the murder of Christians in Nigeria, his omission about the violent persecution of a large religious minority in its mideast homeland drew a rebuff from a leading Republican senator.
"He did mention the Christians in Nigeria, but it was in one small part his speech with other groups like the Yazidis. Yet Christians are the major ones who are being persecuted, forced to convert or pay a tax, or killed," Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said after the speech, in the lobby of the Washington Hilton.
Portman praised most of Obama’s address, saying he "applauded strongly" after Obama condemned the Islamic State and noted that North Korea had released from captivity a Korean-American evangelical missionary, Kenneth Bae.
Portman spoke at the In Defense of Christians summit last September.
Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been devastated by civil and sectarian warfare in the region. Pope Francis and religious leaders have denounced the destruction.
Obama’s 20-minute address touched on the state of religious freedom worldwide. Instead of mentioning Christians by name, he referred to "religious minorities" in the Middle East. "We see sectarian war in Syria, the murder of Muslims and Christians in Nigeria, a religious war in the Central African Republic, a rising tide of anti-Semitism and hate crimes in Europe, so often perpetrated in the name of religion," Obama said.
The president reserved his harshest criticism for the Islamic State of the Levant or Islamic State, which swept into Syria and Iraq last year and has a hold in both countries despite an allied air-campaign against it. "We see ISIL, a brutal death cult that in the name of religion, carries out unspeakable acts of barbarism — terrororizing religious minorities like the Yezidis, subject women to rape as a weapon of war and claiming the mantle of religious authority for such actions," Obama said.
Obama did say that the new ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, would travel to Iraq in a few days "to help religious communities there address some of these challenges." He did not elaborate. A reporter talked with a spokesperson for the White House press office, but a follow-up email was not returned by press time.
A top official at In Defense of Christians, a non-profit, did not say if she considered Obama’s omission a slight. "Um, uh, well, clearly the question of Middle-East Christians is a human-rights issue and one of tremendous and enormous proportion and importance," Executive Director Kirsten Evans said in a telephone interview, fighting off a flu bug. "We would like to believe the president will call attention to this issue and public policy to help Christians in the Middle East."
Although Obama is the Democratic Party’s leader, one leading conservative Republican has criticized Middle-East Christians. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas cut short a talk he gave at the In Defense of Christians summit last year for taking positions he considered hostile to the Jewish state of Israel.