WASHINGTON (CNS) — Close to 200 ordained and lay religious leaders have signed a pledge to commit themselves and the United States to protect Christians in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, who they say are being persecuted for their faith.

Key points in the pledge, released at a May 7 news conference on Capitol Hill, are:

— a request to President Barack Obama to appoint a special envoy on Middle East religious minorities to advocate on their behalf,

— a review of assistance so that funded projects “uphold policies and principles that relate to religious freedom and pluralism;”

— giving refugee and reconstruction aid “to help Christian communities and other defenseless religious groups remain safely in the region.”

Persecution of Christians can be traced to early Christianity, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington. But “the intensity of these new, continuous acts of violence” prompted the need “to bring this to light to the world today.”

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-California), co-chairs of the bipartisan Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, hosted the news conference.

The pledge text observed that Christians collectively form the second largest religious group in the Middle East, after Muslims, numbering up to 15 million people.

It said Egypt, Syria and Iraq, home to the largest remaining Christian communities, have seen “scores of churches deliberately destroyed, many clergy and laypeople targeted for death, kidnapping, intimidation and forcible conversion and hundreds of thousands of believers driven from their countries.”

It added that in Lebanon, the only other indigenous Christian community in the region, with more than 1 million people, could be threatened by instability across its country’s borders.

Joseph Kassab, founder and president of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, told Catholic News Service following the press event, that so many people have fled Iraq that some Chaldean Catholic churches have had to close. Those that remain open are trying to serve the dwindling ranks of Christians.

George Marlin, chairman of the board of Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a Catholic agency chartered to help persecuted believers, told CNS that its staff has, “sad to say,” seen an increase in the number of violent acts against believers.

During the event, Marlin told of a Christian family that had fled an urban area in Iraq for the relatively more peaceful mountain regions in the northern part of the country.

“We need a cheese machine” was the family’s request. They had started tending to a herd of goats in the mountains and wanted the machine to convert the goats’ milk into a more saleable product. Marlin said Aid to the Church in Need got the family a cheese machine.

The Rev. Andrew White, chaplain of St. George Anglican Church in Baghdad, said his church’s feeding program and medical services have always rebuilt after being attacked and damaged. But he says his parishioners have asked, “Has the world forgotten us? Has the world forgotten that we are there?”

But, Rev. White, noted, he can no longer beseech his parishioners, “I’ll never leave you. Don’t you leave me,” because “if they stay, they might be killed.”

Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodius of Boston recalled the slogan commonly seen on posters at airports and train stations: “If you see something, say something.”

“We have been seeing a lot,” he said. “Now is the time to say something.”

Catholic clergy who had signed the pledge as of May 8 included Cardinal Wuerl; Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia; Bishops Gerald N. Dino of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix; John R. Gaydos of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Missouri; Peter A. Libasci of the Diocese of Manchester, New Hampshire; Gregory J. Mansour, of the Maronite Eparchy of Brooklyn, New York; William F. Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York; Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix; Richard E. Pates of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa; Nicholas J. Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Massachusetts; and A. Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Los Angeles; Auxiliary Bishops Denis J. Madden and Mitchell T. Rozanski of the Archdiocese of Baltimore; retired Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange, California, and William S. Skylstad of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington; and Msgr. John Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Lay Catholic signers included former federal Education Secretary William Bennett; Paolo Carozza, director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame; Joseph Cella, founder of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast; John P. Entelis, chair of the political science department at Fordham University in New York; Gregory Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing; Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University in Washington; Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Mary Ann Glendon, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican; author Michael Novak, a visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Florida; William Simon Jr. , co-chairman of William E. Simon and Sons; retired Fordham professor Peter Steinfels; George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington; and James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.