Christian Persecution ‘Not’ the Center Point of Obama’s Vatican Meeting with Pope Francis

By Georgiana Constantin | April 9, 2014

President Barack Obama’s meeting with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 27 revealed that the topic of Christian persecution, particularly in the Middle East, where it is most acute and is the deliberate target of fundamentalist Islamist militants, was not a White House priority. The meeting reportedly started and ended on a positive note, with the pope and the president eventually exchanging gifts and discussing several issues of interest. “In terms of the meeting,” Obama explained, “we had a wide-ranging discussion.  I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his.  One is the issues of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.” Within this context is perhaps one of the most revealing comments Obama may have made regarding his encounter with the pope when the president said, “And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.”

Obama added, “And then we spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.  There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians.  And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”

Here the parallel is striking. In my interview with Mounir Bishay, a Coptic Christian leader in the U.S., the position of the White House became clear when he stated, “the Obama administration has been mostly silent on the plight of the Copts, other than offering lip service from time to time. In statements made by the president and the secretary of state, they claim that they stand for social justice for all Egyptians, including [religious] minorities.”

In retrospect, this, the one important issue, which, even though it was directly connected with “lack of empathy” and the evils it releases into the world, seems to have been of less importance than one would expect – that of the persecution of Christians, particularly in the Middle East.  Obama’s next destination was Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, for a one-day visit before returning to Washington.

At the Press Gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Riyadh, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes noted, “With respect to Syria, I think one of the concerns that was raised that we share is the plight of minorities, including Christians, inside Syria who are a small minority within the country, which can place them at greater risk. And similarly, across the Middle East we’ve seen different Christian communities come under pressure in conflict areas –” and, he claims, Obama and Pope Francis “discussed, in addition to the general conflict and the sectarian nature of it, also the need to try to find ways to support those minority populations, including Christians.”

Whether the current persecution of Christians in the Middle East should have been the ‘center point’ of the conversation between president Obama and His Holiness Pope Francis, one thing is clear, the tragedy Christians face in that region of the world is an ongoing reality, not an “I think” conjecture or hypothetical “potential possibility.” And such situations should cause outrage not disregard. (All emphasis added by author.)

Georgiana Constantin is a law school graduate who has studied European, International and Romanian law. Her thesis on the UN and global governance was completed at the Romanian-American University in Bucharest. She is currently a Masters candidate for International and European Law at the Nicolae Titulescu University in Bucharest. Ms. Constantin, who is based in Romania, is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.