WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the U.S. Capitol and its dome as a dramatic backdrop, members of Congress and religious leaders held an outdoor press conference June 7 to praise the passage of a bill in the House of Representatives that would provide emergency humanitarian assistance to Christians and members of other religious minorities who have been victims of genocide by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and hold the perpetrators accountable.
“For us to do this work shows the best of America,” said Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-California), the bill’s lead co-sponsor.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) sponsored House Resolution 390, which is titled the “Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017.”
The bill passed the House by a unanimous voice vote on June 6.
Smith and the other speakers urged the Senate to swiftly pass the measure so it can be signed into law by President Donald Trump, who has offered public support for assisting persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East.
“Time is of the essence. They need this help, and they need it now,” said Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, the leader of the Knights of Columbus (Crux’s principal partner), who also spoke at the press conference.
Addressing the media, Smith – a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs who in recent years has chaired nine congressional hearings focusing on the atrocities in Iraq and Syria – said that the bill would provide vital humanitarian assistance to church-based relief organizations, like the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil in Iraq, which has been providing food, shelter and medicine to a flood of Iraqi Christians fleeing ISIS persecution.
“Right now, they’re not getting so much as a dime from the U.S. government,” he said, charging that the State Department so far has prohibited that assistance from going to religious groups.
The New Jersey congressman said that he and staff members visited Erbil this past December and witnessed the range of assistance that archdiocese was providing to 6,000 displaced people at a church-run camp, and “I was shocked we (the United States) were not supplying assistance to these men, women and families.”
Smith said that the bill also provides a mechanism for legal tribunals to be set up and evidence to be gathered, so that the perpetrators in Iraq and Syria can be held accountable and brought to justice for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, just as earlier courts did after atrocities in Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia.
“It’s time we stepped up to the plate,” said Smith. “…There is an emergency here.”
Eshoo said the measure if enacted “will make a difference in the lives of tens of thousands of people who’ve been persecuted by ISIS – Christians, Yazidis and other minorities in the Middle East.”
She added, “There’s been enormous suffering,” and noted that people fled for their lives from their homes, and now those traumatized people “want their lives to go on, especially for the children.”
Noting that the Congress a year earlier “did something historic” for only the third time in that legislative body’s history formally declaring that a genocide was taking place, she added that legislators also understood “we had more work to do.”
Eshoo said the U.S. government’s working with faith groups is “a pillar of our democracy,” and the bill now being considered by the Senate could open up vital streams of humanitarian assistance to faith groups like the Archdiocese of Erbil who are on the ground providing help to members of religious minorities fleeing ISIS.
The bill does not allocate new funding, which Congress has already approved for humanitarian assistance in the region, said Smith, who said it would provide help and hope to suffering members of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria who have been “left out and left behind.”
That U.S. aid would augment support now being provided by groups like the Knights of Columbus, which since 2014 has donated more than $12 million for Christian refugee relief to communities, which according to the Knights’ website, are “too often ignored by direct U.N. or U.S. government assistance.”
The Knights have recently launched an emergency relief campaign and have pledged to match donations received by July 1 up to $1 million, with all money raised going to assist with food programs for Christian refugees in Iraq. (Donations can be made at ChristiansatRisk.org or by calling 1-800-694-5713.)
Addressing the press conference, the Knights’ leader Anderson said that last year with the declaration acknowledging genocide being perpetrated by ISIS against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, “Congress had the courage to confront reality,” and with its passage of H.R. 390, legislators demonstrated “the courage to change reality.”
Anderson praised the bill’s broad bipartisan support in a Congress known for its political divisions – the measure had 47 Republican and Democratic cosponsors. That support demonstrated that on this issue, “the country is united,” Anderson said, adding that the measure offers proof that “the terrorists will not win.”
In addition to the Knights, the bill was also supported by the United States Conference of Bishops and Aid to the Church in Need USA; and by other groups including the Family Research Council, In Defense of Christians, the Community of Sant’Egidio, the Heritage Foundation, the Religious Freedom Institute and Genocide Watch.
Noting the living legacy of Iraqi Christians whose history goes back to apostolic times, Anderson said, “From a Christian standpoint, these are people who still pray in the language of Jesus. They have every right to survive.”
Like other speakers, he said that beyond humanitarian assistance, the region’s Christians deserved the freedom to live and practice their faith without fear of persecution or legal hurdles. “It’s a human rights issue,” he said.
That point was underscored by another speaker at the press conference, Bishop Bawai Soro, the vicar general of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of St. Peter the Apostle in El Cajon, California.
That diocese includes more than 65,000 Catholics in the western United States of Chaldean or Assyrian ancestry who immigrated from the Middle East, especially from Iraq and Iran.
“It is our dream that Christians will not be second-class citizens in their homeland,” he said, emphasizing the need for them to have religious freedom and equal political rights and economic opportunities.
Humanitarian assistance and constitutional guarantees for religious minorities go hand-in-hand in securing a better future for them, he added.
The Chaldean bishop said that the situation remains “very fragile” for Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Christians in Iraq throughout history have been at the forefront in providing health care and educational outreach in that region and have been peacemakers and catalysts for reform, Soro said, adding that Iraq’s Christians can play a similar role for Iraq’s future, working together as they have in the past with its many religious and cultural groups to bring unity to their country.
He thanked the members of the House for working together in a bipartisan fashion on the genocide emergency relief and accountability act.
Another speaker at the press conference, Haider Elias, the president of Yazda, a global Yazidi organization, said the legislation was critically important for the future of Yazidis and Christians in the region.
“We urge the Senate to expedite it and pass it. Yazidis and Christians are in dire need of assistance to survive as religious minorities in the region,” he said.
Noting the human cost of the ISIS genocide, Elias – whose brother and several extended family members were killed by the terrorist group – said captured male Yazidis are separated to be killed, male children are taken away to be indoctrinated, and women face rape and forced marriages.
Holding the perpetrators of genocide accountable for their crimes is vital, “so religious minorities can finally witness justice has been served,” he said.
After the press conference, the Chaldean bishop told Crux how he had witnessed Christians in Iraq who continue to go to Mass faithfully in tents, in fields, in newly constructed worship spaces, or by riding buses to the cathedral. Describing the faith of the suffering displaced people, and of the church workers assisting them, he said they reflect “the face of Christ.”
“Suffering in Iraqi Christianity is an ongoing phenomenon. My grandparents suffered during World War I,” said Soro, who added, “I see history repeating itself.”
But the bishop said he still has hope for the present and future of Iraq’s Christians.
- “I believe this generation will preserve the faith and hand it on to their children and grandchildren,” he said. “I have hope, because the Lord that they believe in promised he would be with them through the ages, especially as they go through suffering.”