ERBIL, Iraq – American foreign policy in Iraq has had its share of missteps, and one quiet casualty of this policy has been the country’s ever smaller Christian population.
Now Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organization Subcommittee, and of the bi-partisan Helsinki Commission, is asking questions – not just in Washington, but in Iraq itself.
In one of the horrible ironies of American foreign policy here, Christians in Iraq were targeted for genocide by ISIS, but not for assistance from the U.S. government or the U.N. In fact, Christian leaders in the region have repeatedly stated that they risk extinction, with their population still inside Iraq having declined by almost 90 percent in just over a decade.
Still, unlike the governments of Poland and Hungary, the U.S. and U.N. bureaucracies have clung stubbornly to the idea that only individuals should be helped and the endangered Christian communities have not received meaningful American or U.N aid – especially in Erbil, where most now live as displaced persons.
Prior to coming to Iraq, Smith had held hearings on the issue in Washington, hearing from experts including Steve Rasche, an American attorney who works at the Archdiocese of Erbil, and Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, which has donated millions of dollars to the Archdiocese of Erbil and others assisting Christians in the region.
In visiting Erbil, Smith wanted to see what was happening first hand. And he brought two messages: he wanted the U.S. government and the UN to start helping the Christians, and he wanted to know why they were not doing so already.
“The president has not stepped up to assist for the last three years, but he could step up before he gets out of office,” Smith told Crux. “My hope for the new government, my fondest hope,” Smith added “is that it provide immediate life saving aid to the displaced Christian community in Erbil.”
About half of the Christians remaining in Iraq now live in Erbil, where the Chaldean Archdiocese provides care for as many as 70,000 who have been displaced.
During his visit, Congressman Smith was hosted by the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil and met with several families who had been displaced by ISIS, as well as with bishops from the Chaldean and Syriac Catholic, and the Syriac Orthodox Church. The Congressman also had meetings with UN, U.S. And NGO leaders there and visited the Ashti 2 center: the largest Christian camp for those displaced , which houses 6,000 people.
At the camp, he met with displaced families and also their priest, Father Emmanuel, who directly negotiated with ISIS as it invaded.
Responding to some in the international community who attempt to downplay what Christians endured by claiming they could pay a tax to be left unmolested, Emmanuel told Smith that such stories are simply untrue because it was never a real option, and that the Christians rightly saw any such talk from ISIS as a trap. In fact, even when suggested by ISIS the option never materialized, and almost every Christian from these villages who wasn’t killed or captured, fled.
News stories indicated that the few elderly souls who remained were repeatedly robbed in the name of the “tax” and then forcibly converted to Islam anyway.
And no Christian services have been celebrated in Qaraqosh – the largest Christian town – for more than two years.
The stories Smith heard were of total loss, but also of defiance, survival and deep faith.
One Christian family told of being evicted from Mosul, and fleeing to Qaraqosh, only to have to flee again when ISIS came there. And when Smith asked if their faith had been diminished or strengthened, every family said in unison that their suffering had made their faith even stronger.
In addition to discussions of the homes lost, and villages captured, Mr. Smith was also shown pictures of the destroyed homes, booby traps and desecrated churches and graves in the newly liberated areas of Nineveh from which many of the displaced originally came.
The pictures made clear how far away the dream of returning home remains for those displaced and how much money and security will be needed if any are ever to return at all.
Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, who had invited the congressman, welcomed his visit and told Crux that he hoped it would help usher in better solutions for the Christian community in Iraq.
“There are lobbies in Washington making decisions on behalf of Christians here, and those decisions have an effect,” he told Crux. In addition to humanitarian assistance, the emphasis must be on “equal rights” for non-majority groups like the Christians, and “an end to corruption in both the areas of the country controlled by the Baghdad government, and those controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government.”
Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Boutros Moushe also told Congresman Smith that the problem wasn’t just ISIS. “They looted and burned our houses and were responsible for what happened. These evil intentions still exist,” he said. “We need the international community’s assistance to bring trust again.”
Many throughout the day openly expressed hope that President-elect Trump would be more open to helping them than President Obama had been.
And, while happy to share their concerns, that an American Congressman would focus on the plight of Christians was a rare ray of hope for a besieged community that has generally felt ignored by Washington. And they were grateful.
Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus of Mosul commended Congressman Smith in words that summed the feeling up well: “I am so excited, this is the first time an American [official] has come just to ask about Christians,” he said.