US Congress passes bill to relieve Christians, Yazidis in Iraq and Syria

A center for internally displaced persons, most of whom are Christians, in Dawodiya, Iraq, April 10, 2016. Credit: Elise Harris/CNA.
A center for internally displaced persons, most of whom are Christians, in Dawodiya, Iraq, April 10, 2016. Credit: Elise Harris/CNA.

.- The US House of Representatives passed Tuesday H.R. 390, a bill titled “Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act,” which seeks to assist with the rebuilding of the Christian and Yazidi communities in Iraq and Syria.

Having also passed the Senate, the bill now will go to President Donald Trump, who has indicated he is willing to sign it.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and was cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 47 members of Congress. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) was the lead Democratic co-sponsor of the bill. The bill was passed unanimously in the House Nov. 27.

H.R. 390 would provide funding to entities, including those who are faith-based, that are assisting with the humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery efforts in Iraq and Syria to religious and ethnic minorities in the area.

It would also direct the Trump administration to “assess and address the humanitarian vulnerabilities, needs, and triggers that might force these survivors to flee” the area, as well as identify potential warning signs of violence against religious or ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Additionally, the bill will support entities that are conducting criminal investigations into members of the Islamic State who committed “crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq,” and will encourage foreign governments to identify suspected Islamic State perpetrators in security databases and security screenings to assist with their capture and prosecution.

The Senate unanimously passed a slightly amended version of the bill Oct. 11.

“The fact that this bill passed both the House and the Senate unanimously shows that the American response to genocide transcends partisanship and that there is enormous political will to protect and preserve religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians and Yazidis, who were targeted for extinction,” said Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson upon the bill’s passage. Anderson testified at a congressional hearing about the bill.

“We thank Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ), the bill’s author, and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), its lead cosponsor, for their leadership in partnership with Knights of Columbus on this important bill,” he said.

Smith noted that “over-stretched groups on the ground” have been “fill[ing] the gap” in providing aid to survivors of Islamic State. He said that so far, Aid to the Church in Need has contributed more than $60 million, and the Knights of Columbus more than $20 million, to the region's response.

The bill took 17 months to pass, Smith told CNA, and was introduced in two previous years. Smith was able to visit Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, and he said he found the work the archbishop was doing there to be inspiring. The congressman said that it was important to include faith-based entities among those receiving funding under the bill.

Since Islamic State came to power in the region, the Christian and Yazidi populations have been decimated, Warda explained to CNA. And even though Islamic State is no longer in power and the area has been liberated, the region’s Christians are still struggling due to the conflict.

Many people have not been able to rebuild their homes, and a lack of job prospects cause people to leave even though the situation is largely safe, said Warda. In order to provide long-term security for the region’s Christians, he said that there needs to be an emphasis on economic opportunities for young people.

“I'm a shepherd there. I have to really speak to my people there and tell them that it's safe. It's safe to be and to prosper at the same time,” he said. “So, providing jobs. Helping and really realizing some of the economical projects for the young people, to help them stay and prosper in the area."

Many of the area’s Christians fled to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. While Warda said that he would love to work on luring them back to Iraq, he conceded that this task is “really difficult.”

Another effort to ensure long-term safety for religious minorities will require a cultural shift, Warda explained. The deaths or displacement of Christians and Yazidis are considered “collateral damage” by the government, said Warda. This mentality resulted in “the majority of the persecution” faced by those groups.

He laid blame on the public school curriculum used in Iraq, which provides no information at all about religious minority groups in the country.

“There’s nothing about Christians,” he explained, noting that non-Muslims are described as infidels, and conspiracy theories about these groups abound.

Warda was particularly pleased with the inclusion of support for the criminal prosecution of Islamic State members who committed genocide. This, he said, will ensure that "history will not be written by people like ISIS. For the first time, the victims of this genocide will be able to tell their story and to provide history from their side."

The ability for these groups to have their stories heard will be a way to ensure that this genocide and displacement does not happen again.

"Unless you tell Muslims that there's something wrong in the way that you teach Islam, the history will repeat itself,” the bishop explained. Even though Islamic State was defeated, “the ideology is still there.”

“Writing the history from the side of the victims; it would help the other (side) to realize 'okay, never again,” he said.

“Hopefully.”

Editor's note: the post has been corrected. An earlier verision quoted Rep. Smith as saying the bill had been introduced in three previous years instead of two.

Tags: Chris Smith, Christians in the Middle East