Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues and the International Religious Freedom Caucus, delivered the keynote address at the Oct. 24 AHEPA Congressional Banquet in honor of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Europe Subcommittee, was joined by House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise and ten other Members of Congress at a reception afterward.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was the guest of honor at the event as part of his long-awaited official trip to the United States, which had originally been planned for Spring 2020. The Patriarch officially opened the doors and blessed the cross atop the dome of Saint Nicholas National Shrine in Manhattan as part of his visit.
In what was termed “perhaps his most powerful speech ever as a Congressman” by John Sitilides, a geopolitical strategist who is also an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Rep. Bilirakis spoke at the AHEPA event of the long history of religious persecution in the world and how his faith helps him in his work as a Representative.
Remarking that his family has deep roots in the Orthodox faith, Bilirakis noted that he and his four sons all served as altar boys at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs, Florida; his cousin Nikita is a Metropolitan in the Orthodox Church and a member of the Holy Synod.
Christians around world face continuing lack of religious freedom, persecution
Admitting that “the statement I’m about to make might not be well received by some of my colleagues in the U.S. Congress,” he declared “When I go to work every day and step on to the House floor to vote, I don’t check my faith at the door, I take it with me into the chamber to guide me and inform my decisions.
“My belief system gives me moral clarity. I rely upon it,” Biilrakis noted.
Stating that “Whether we are teachers, firefighters, waiters, or members of Congress,” it is incumbent upon all of us to live our lives in a manner that reflects those values, he said.
Recalling the many years of martyrdom for the first Christians, including many Orthodox saints, Bilirakis stated that these witnesses “made it easy for us. They did all of the hard work for us… While living in empire after empire with leaders hostile to Christians, they not only courageously, but gladly, faced the most inhumane tortures at the hands of persecutors of our faith.”
Recounting that these first witnesses to the Christian faith “faced the most horrific deaths, stonings, being burned alive, beheadings, drownings, crucifixions,” he stated, “Yet they persevered. They remained model stewards of the faith.”
Relating that even today, Christians are being killed and displaced as a result of persecution, Biirakis noted “As Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on International Religious Freedom, I know that in Africa, and the Middle East and other hostile environments, Orthodox Christians are suffering simply because of the faith and the God they refuse to renounce.”
Bilirakis tries to raise awareness, stop religious persecution
As part of the Caucus, the longtime Florida congressman stated “My colleagues and I have been working hard to raise awareness and stop the persecution abroad, and we will continue to do so.”
He then went on to note that despite the freedom of religion in the West, there is still a “so called ‘crisis’ right here at home. The freest country in the history of the world. A country that was founded by religious pilgrims looking for freedom to worship,” as he lamented the lack of church attendance by many today.
Saying that martyrs such as the apostle James and other, who faced cruel tortures and martyrdom in the past, set an example for the ones to come; he wondered what they would make of what he called our “weakness and sloth” today in making time to even attend church.
Admitting that he was guilty of this at times as well, he urged all the faithful to “not let ourselves get away with it anymore,” and to contribute more to the Church, the community and the nation.
“Because change starts in the family. In the home. It spreads to the community and then spreads to the nation,” he maintained.
AHEPA founded in 1922 to counter hatred from KKK
“Let us take advantage of the freest nation in the world,” he urged, to make a better world for everyone.
“In the words of his All holiness Bartholomew, ‘we are both the heirs and the envoys of the Holy Greek Orthodox Tradition and of a brilliant Civilization thousands of years old, a civilization that is deeply honored throughout the American continent.’
“We cannot let it be extinguished,” Bilirakis declared. “We must not only keep it alive—we must make sure it thrives. Let us fight together for the religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and our ‘thriskia.'”
Commending not only the faithful Orthodox clergy but their wives, or presvyteres, as well, “who are leaders along side their husbands in each of their churches,” Bilirakis lauded the women of the Philoptochos charitable society and the Archons of the Church, who he said “with your time and resources help to keep the Church alive, not only here in America, but in Constantinople.”
Also extending his gratitude for the parishioners who steadfastly support the Church, he thanked “His All Holiness (Patriarch Bartholomew) for leading the flock and imparting unto us your love and holy wisdom even while you face existential threats on a daily basis.”
Founded in 1922 in Atlanta, Georgia, on the principles that undergirded its fight for civil rights and against discrimination, bigotry, and hatred felt at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, AHEPA is the largest and oldest grassroots association of American citizens of Greek heritage and Philhellenes with more than 400 chapters across the United States, Canada, and Europe.