In March 2016, the Obama administration, with the encouragement of a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives, declared that ISIS was committing genocide against religious minorities in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry observed that the terror group “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions — in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.” Republicans lambasted the Obama administration for taking so long to make the declaration and, in the wake of the declaration, for having no response plan. The absence of any follow-up was particularly embarrassing for an administration that featured as its ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who wrote the book on genocide, making a scathing indictment of government failure to act.
Yet the Republicans have not distinguished themselves for their leadership in this area now that they control the executive as well as legislative branches of the federal government, even though both President Trump and Vice President Pence have spoken out strongly on the issue. One former Republican congressman, Frank Wolf (R., Va.), warns that if we do not take action, we will soon “see the end of Christianity in the cradle of Christendom.”
Wolf’s comments came on July 19, at an event in the Kennedy Caucus Room of the Senate, where he was lauded for his long career combating the persecution of religious minorities around the globe. Speakers included current members of the House, Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), as well as Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
Wolf sponsored the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, which established the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and the positions of special adviser on international religious freedom (under the aegis of the White House’s National Security Council) and of U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. The Frank R. Wolf Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 1150), named in his honor, was signed into law in 2016. He now supports the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017 (H.R. 390). The bill passed unanimously in the House but has stalled in the Senate.
In comments at the Capitol Hill event, Wolf stressed the need for HR 390. He cited the historical significance of Middle Eastern Christian communities where “more Biblical activity occurred anywhere other than Israel.” In a phone interview, Wolf stressed that what these communities need is not military presence but humanitarian assistance in the form of water, power, and housing. Indeed, he noted that the funding for the bill has already been appropriated. He added that it would be advantageous for the “U.S. State Department and USAID to have an office on the ground in Erbil.”
Stephen Rasche, another prominent speaker at the event honoring Wolf, addressed the current crisis in some detail. Legal counsel and chief coordinator of the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, Rasche serves also with the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil (Kurdistan Region of Iraq), as legal counsel and director of assistance for internally displaced persons.
In an interview after the event, he provided further information and a plea for immediate action.
Thomas Hibbs: What is the situation on the ground now in Iraq?
Stephen Rasche: The Christian population in Iraq is at a tipping point. The displaced Christians from Nineveh have survived for three years almost exclusively on the back of private, mostly faith-based aid, but the ability of these donors to carry this load is coming to an end. Likewise, the ability of the people to further endure in their current situations is at an end. What the established aid community will do to ensure their survival in the next two months will likely be determinative for the continued presence in the region of these displaced people.
Overall, there remains a remnant population of approximately 5,000 families in Baghdad, two existing viable hubs in the northern Kurdistan Region, and one potential hub in the Southern Nineveh Plain.
Of the two in the north, Ankawa, the historic Christian enclave of Erbil, is home to what is at present the last fully operating, economically viable Christian community in Iraq. Alqosh, which barely avoided ISIS takeover in 2014, remains a viable center from which to redevelop the Christian areas of the Northern Nineveh Plain, provided it receives stabilization and reconstruction help now.
The fate of Hamdaniyah [Qaraqosh] remains uncertain, as with all of the Christian towns in the Iraqi sector, but if stabilized, reconstructed, and resettled, it could resume its historic role as the center for Christianity in the Southern Nineveh Plain.
However, all of these areas require help and support now if they are to survive. The ISIS war created more than 100,000 displaced Christians from Nineveh, and they are looking squarely to see if there will be support for their return to their ancestral homes. These IDPs [internally displaced persons] are acutely aware that over the past three years the institutional aid community, including the U.S. and the U.N., have done little to ensure their survival, and there is great concern that support for their resettlement will not fare any better. In this context, they are waiting out the summer to gauge whether support will be there for them or not, and, if not, they have made it clear that many of them intend to rebuild their lives elsewhere, most of them joining the diaspora and heading out of Iraq.
Western policymakers have allowed the Christians of Iraq to be the acceptable collateral damage at every stage along the way for the past 20 years.
Recent disbursements of U.S. aid dollars that appear to have essentially bypassed the Christians again have not done anything to encourage hope for their resettlement. In a very real sense, if no action is taken in the next two months to help them, we could see the end of a Christian presence in most of the Nineveh Plains. This would leave only the indigenous Christian populations of Ankawa, Alqosh, and Baghdad, which would altogether be barely 100,000 people, down from 1.5 million in 2003.
Hibbs: What is needed to alter this situation?
Rasche: What is most critically needed is a clear recognition by the West that these ancient people are on the verge of disappearing from their homeland, where they have lived peacefully for 2,000 years. We are potentially just months away from this. If it happens, it will happen on the watch of Western policymakers, in the U.S., the U.K., and the EU, who have allowed the Christians of Iraq to be the acceptable collateral damage at every stage along the way for the past 20 years.
The understanding of urgency that this recognition would invite would set into motion everything necessary to ensure the security of the Christians now. In a tragic sense, their small remaining numbers make this effort reachable. If prudently spent, $50 million today could save these ancient people. That, in current terms, is a pittance.
An additional critical issue here that should concern U.S. decision-makers is that the disappearance of the Christians from Nineveh would allow for a major Iranian victory in its overall plans for the region, in that it would greatly accelerate Iranian efforts to change the region’s overall demographics, as historically Christian communities would be replaced by Iranian-backed Shia settlers.
Hibbs: How would the passage of H.R. 390 help?
Rasche: It would help most concretely in that it would explicitly authorize and direct some aid to be delivered to religious and ethnic minorities who were targeted for genocide — in Iraq, that would mainly Christians and Yazidis — to help ensure that they continue to survive. It would also clearly authorize and direct the delivery of some of this through the established faith-based entities that have shouldered so much of the work already for these past three years.
One thing its implementation would make clear in very short order is how much more efficient and less burdened by heavy administrative costs the faith-based delivery systems are. It is clear to anybody working in the area that the established institutional delivery systems, mostly U.N.-managed, are enormously inefficient and often unresponsive. Indeed, in the case of the Iraqi Christians, these institutional delivery systems have for the most part been wholly disconnected from the care of the Christian IDP population since the outset of the crisis.
Hibbs: What can concerned U.S. citizens and members of churches do?
Rasche: First, and we ask this always, pray for the Christians of the Middle East. They are your brothers and sisters, and they are on the verge of extinction for having refused to give up their faith. When you pray for them, you are keeping them in your hearts, and when they are in your hearts, they will be in your thoughts.
Americans can contact their congressmen and senators, and also the administration, and ask them this question: The Christians of the Nineveh Plain are disappearing on your watch and could be gone completely in a matter of months — what actions are you taking now to stop this?
Indeed, that is the question: What is Congress doing? What is the president doing? What are American churches doing? And each of us — what are we doing at this crucial moment?