Iraqi Christian genocide survivors may forever vanish from their ancient homelands. They were in crisis when I met with them a few days before Christmas last year in Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Now their survival is endangered and two things must be done to secure it.
The Senate should quickly bring up and pass the House-passed, bipartisan H.R. 390 (Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act)—which I authored with my colleague, Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-18). H.R. 390 authorizes the Administration to direct humanitarian and recovery assistance to all religious and ethnic minority communities ISIS targeted for genocide. Aid would come from already-approved funds and no additional money is authorized. Authorization would ensure that as long as the U.S. is responding to the crises in Iraq and Syria, vital aid will go to these genocide-surviving communities.
The President should also issue formal instructions, such as a Presidential Memorandum, directing his Administration—especially the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)—to identify the needs of these communities and immediately fund entities effectively assisting them on-the-ground. H.R. 390 is a blueprint for such executive action.
The President and Vice President have spoken strongly about the ISIS genocide and committed the Administration to bringing relief to survivors. The Secretary of State formally issued the Administration’s genocide declaration in the recently released International Religious Freedom Report for 2016. His predecessor had also declared the genocide. Last year, the House and Senate unanimously passed resolutions with genocide declarations. The genocide determination is settled. What remains unsettled is whether the U.S. will help Christian and Yazidi communities survive.
Our actions over the next month or two may determine whether the Nineveh Plains remain the historic homeland of many Iraqi Christians. ISIS drove them out with its genocidal campaign and destroyed or damaged their homes, markets and churches. Reconstruction has begun on some homes and some families have returned. Many other families have signaled they want to return. However, they know the U.S. and most other countries have done little to help them survive and rebuild. They also know private funding from groups like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need that sustained them in Erbil is running out. Unless more homes are rebuilt, or humanitarian aid provided, many may be forced to abandon their homes and leave Iraq permanently.
America also has pressing national security interests in enabling Christians to return to their homes. Iran has been paying individuals to move into empty Christian homes in the Nineveh Plains—house-stealing—and backing them with its proxy militias. This supports the Iranian government’s aspirations to directly or indirectly control road access in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to move weapons and personnel.
Additionally, ISIS murders, tortures and enslaves religious and ethnic minorities as part of its ideology and recruitment. Even if ISIS is defeated militarily in Iraq, if it succeeds in purging religious and ethnic minorities from their homelands, terrorist radicalization, recruiting and violence will be fed for generations. Aiding these genocide survivors is an essential element of countering this threat.
Despite this urgency, some career staff at the State Department and USAID have been thwarting the President by making the same decisions as they did during the Obama Administration: refusing to prioritize the survival of religious and ethnic communities targeted for genocide.
These staffers claim they are only able to look at the needs of individuals, without consideration for the survival of their communities, and are unable to fund faith-based entities like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. I saw first-hand how the Archdiocese has been providing almost all the medical care, food and shelter to more than 95,000 Christians—almost 90% of Christian survivors—who escaped ISIS and remain in Iraq, as well as some Yazidi and Muslim survivors. The Archdiocese has also been leading the ecumenical Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, which is working to rebuild 12,000 damaged or destroyed Christian homes.
Neither U.S. law nor international norms prohibit directing such assistance to such communities or prohibit funding faith-based entities like the Archdiocese of Erbil, so long as they use it strictly for humanitarian and related purposes and are able to meet certain standards of effectiveness, accounting and transparency.
Nevertheless, some of these staffers continue to claim they lack authorization to implement the commitments of the President and the requirements in the budget bill for the current fiscal year. Passing H.R. 390, and signing it into law, will leave no doubt about the will of the President, the Congress and the American people. Formal instructions from the President will likewise make it clear how he expects his Administration to help these genocide survivors and that there will be accountability if the relevant government agencies fail to act accordingly.
Since ISIS began its genocidal rampage in 2013, I have chaired nine hearings, focused wholly or partially on the crisis. It became clear hearings were not enough and legislation was necessary to move the rank and file bureaucrats. That is why I introduced H.R. 390 in the last Congress and introduced it again this Congress. Together with ongoing Congressional oversight, executive instructions and accountability, the legislation will help Christians, Yazidis and other persecuted religious and ethnic minorities outlast the genocide. It is bipartisan and supported by a wide range of leaders, groups and constituents across the country.
When I met with surviving Christian families in Erbil, they told me suffering had strengthened their faith and they still believed the United States would not abandon them. They need our help now. Will we give it?