(RNS) — Astonishingly, for three years U.S. government bureaucrats have refused to help endangered religious minority communities like Christians and Yazidis survive the genocide ISIS began in 2014. These communities stand on the brink of extinction.
As a witness from Iraq testified at a congressional hearing I chaired Tuesday (Oct. 3) — the 10th hearing I have convened on the atrocities — “foreign aid decisions will determine whether Christianity and religious pluralism will survive in Iraq at all.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development is reviewing a proposal from the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee to repair 6,800 religious minority homes damaged or destroyed by ISIS on the Nineveh Plains of northern Iraq.
The NRC is an ecumenical partnership between the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syriac Catholic Church and Syriac Orthodox Church. It has already restored more than 2,200 houses and two towns, enabling more than 11,000 displaced Christians to return home. Two Christian charities, the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, have provided most of the funding, together with support from the government of Hungary. But more is needed.
The decision by USAID, led by former Ambassador Mark Green, about this proposal will determine whether the initiative proceeds and succeeds, or terminates, threatening the future of these communities.
Just before Christmas last year, I led a human rights mission to Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, to meet with genocide survivors. We saw firsthand the medical care, food, shelter and education the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil was providing to most of the Christians who escaped ISIS, as well as some Yazidis and Muslims. The Nineveh Reconstruction Committee will be an efficient and cost-effective steward of U.S. resources and supports this proposal.
President Trump declared at the National Prayer Breakfast in February that mass murder and other atrocities ISIS committed against religious groups were genocide, and Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Tillerson later repeated his declaration — making him the second consecutive secretary of state to declare this genocide determination. There are two actions the president should take now to stop bureaucrats from obstructing assistance to genocide survivors whose very existence as a people teeters on a precipice.
First, the president should issue a presidential decision directive or presidential memorandum instructing the State Department and USAID to fund entities — including local faith-based ones — that can capably provide on-the-ground humanitarian and recovery assistance to the religious and ethnic minority communities targeted for genocide.
Second, the president should task a senior administration official to coordinate this effort and make sure these instructions are fully implemented. There should be accountability at the State Department and USAID if the internal obstruction continues.
Congress required the secretary of state to determine by March 17, 2016 whether violent Islamist extremists were committing genocide against Christians and people of other faiths in the Middle East. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution declaring the genocide two days before the determination was due and the Senate later unanimously passed a similar resolution. The budget for fiscal year 2017 required the State Department and USAID to use some of the funds specifically to assist genocide victims from religious minorities.
But career staff at the State Department and USAID have continued to ignore the genocide declarations (and the law). So Congress must do more. In September 2016, I introduced a bipartisan bill with my friend Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., to ensure U.S. assistance is directed to these communities and introduced it again as H.R. 390 (Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act) almost immediately after the new Congress began this January. The House unanimously passed H.R. 390 in June and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously passed it in September. I hope the full Senate passes this urgently needed legislation.
Key government bureaucrats have been blind to people of faith for decades. They often see individuals merely as individuals or cases, rather than parts of a people or community of faith whose lives and destinies are beautifully bound together — and who are often targeted together. They also miss that prioritizing religious freedom globally enhances our national security, including our fight against terrorist groups that target religious groups as part of their ideology, propaganda and recruiting.
This is why my good friend former Congressman Frank Wolf authored the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998 and I authored the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act that was signed into law in December. These laws are intended to ensure our government does not marginalize religious freedom abroad, nor favor particular religious groups nor discriminate against others (as some bureaucrats claim happens).
The same Christian faith that led me to public service and to fight for children, people with autism, veterans and victims of human trafficking, has also led me to dedicate myself to persecuted people of all faiths.
At the hearing I chaired on Tuesday, a young Yazidi woman who uses the name “Shireen” testified. She was abducted by ISIS and then enslaved, tortured and assaulted for nine months. She said she was sold five times to abusers. Shireen bravely recounted her own heartbreaking story, and testified about her 19 family members still missing, and the plight of the Yazidis and Christians. She told Congress:
“Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities, especially the non-Muslim minorities, cannot survive in Syria and Iraq under the current conditions. Without serious action from you and the world governments many of these people will continue to flee their ancient homelands of Syria and Iraq.”
May Shireen’s courageous witness and testimony give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves: the murdered, the brutalized, the missing, those who rest in mass graves, and the many still believed to be enslaved and enduring unspeakable crimes. May her experience guide our actions and finally move us to do more to deliver desperately needed assistance to the survivors of the ISIS genocide.
Chris Smith of New Jersey, a Republican first elected to the House of Representatives in 1980, is a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of its global human rights subcommittee. He is also current co-chairman and past chairman of two U.S. human rights bodies: the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China and the Helsinki Commission. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service or Word&Way.