It took way too long. It shouldn’t have required any heavy political lifting. Little noted in the media, at the end of the last Congress the House and Senate passed, and the president signed, a new law that specifically authorizes the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide direct support to Syrian and Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities who were the victims of ISIS genocide.
Passage of the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act was a rare bipartisan triumph in an era of bitter partisan divide. It was made possible by the leadership of conservative Representative Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and aided substantially by liberal Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.). They set aside their profound ideological differences to provide statesmanship on a crucial matter of human rights.
But much more contributed to this achievement than rare congressional comity. Years in the making, the law’s passage illustrates the importance of non-profit, often religiously based non-governmental organizations that advocate on behalf of the world’s downtrodden and oppressed. It is particularly noteworthy that the Knights of Columbus was one of primary leaders of these efforts, both pushing for legal protection of the persecuted and providing substantial humanitarian support for religious minorities suffering under the ISIS boot.
The Knights were not alone, of course. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic organization, and Samaritan’s Purse, an Evangelical group, also were crucial participants (among others). But with Senator Mazie Hirono (D., Hawaii) recently seeking to ostracize the Knights for taking “extremist” political positions (opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage), and with presidential candidate and Senator Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) taking a sneering line of questioning of a judicial nominee because of his long-time Knights membership in “an all-male society comprised of Catholic men,” the organization’s focused humanitarianism and political advocacy on behalf of beleaguered Syrian and Iraqi religious minorities deserves special recognition.
During the Obama administration, ISIS roared through large portions of Syria and into Iraq, conquering huge swathes of territory and even briefly threatening Baghdad. Once “the caliphate” was in control of territories, it crushed indigenous Christian, Yazidi, and non-Sunni Muslims. Actually, “crushed” is a mild term for the brutality these minorities suffered. It included murder, torture, rape, kidnapping, enslavement, starvation, dispossession, and otherwise being subjected to ethnic and religious cleansing.
Enter the Knights, with the clout that comes from having some 2 million members worldwide, half of whom are in the United States. Since the early 20th century, the organization has supported victims of religious oppression, including victims of the Armenian genocide. It sought to persuade FDR to protect European Jews. “Coming to the aid of persecuted religious minorities in the conflict area came naturally for us,” Knights spokesman Joseph Cullen tells me.
The persecuted religious communities in Syria and Iraq represent a diverse collection of faiths and sects: Eastern-rite Catholics, Orthodox Christians, the Church of the East, the Chaldean Syrian Church, Yazidis, Protestants, and minority Muslim sects. The “extremist” Knights contributed $20 million over several years to supply food, housing, medical assistance, sanitation, education, clothing, and other humanitarian aid to the victims. (Demonstrating the clout deployed by religious and other non-profit NGOs, Aid to the Church in Need contributed $60 million to the support efforts.)
Perhaps even more important for the long-term protection of these religious minorities, the Knights lobbied the Obama administration to declare ISIS’s oppression of Christians and others in Syria and Iraq “genocide.” The State Department refused, claiming that it had insufficient facts to make that legally portentous designation.
That was unacceptable to the Knights. The organization offered to prove the case and sent representatives into the region, including very dangerous areas, to gather information on the ground. They conferred with afflicted local church leaders and members of other NGOs assisting displaced groups. They took witness statements, documented mass graves, and recorded the stories of overrun towns. With factual data in hand, the group drafted a legal brief demonstrating that under relevant international law the ISIS butchery was indeed genocide. They submitted their conclusion as part of a 300-page report to the State Department. The report included detailed evidentiary exhibits such as, for example, an ISIS price list for female slaves kidnapped from Christian and Yazidi communities.
The material the Knights proffered was persuasive and, as was other information known by the government, undeniable: In March 2016, the State Department changed its earlier positon on the question and declared that ISIS had committed genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.
With the curtain lowering on the Obama administration, the genocide designation did not change policy immediately, however. “It was still a big step,” Cullen recalls, “enormously helpful in allowing the Trump administration to focus more closely on the plight of these religious communities.”
But there still wasn’t a specific law allowing the administration to aid affected Christians and Yazidis directly. Smith and Eshoo, determined to fill that void, introduced their anti-genocide bill in January 2017. It took nearly two years, but finally, with the State Department genocide declaration the needed predicate, and, as Smith noted in a floor speech, with Christians in the area “still at the brink of extinction,” the new law designated U.S. strategy going forward:
It is the policy of the United States to ensure that assistance for humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery needs of individuals who are or were nationals and residents of Iraq or Syria, and of communities in and from those countries, is directed toward those individuals and communities with the greatest need, including those individuals from communities of religious and ethnic minorities, and communities of religious and ethnic minorities, that the Secretary of State declared were targeted for genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.
Thanks to the law, the secretary of state and USAID are now authorized to provide financial and technical assistance to “entities, including nongovernmental organizations with appropriate expertise to conduct criminal investigations, including the collection and preservation of evidence.” The law also permits funding and support for “entities, including faith-based entities that are providing assistance to address the humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery needs” of afflicted individuals and populations. Demonstrating the commitment of the Trump administration to these efforts, Max Primorac was appointed recently as USAID’s special representative for minority-assistance programs in Iraq.
Now comes the hard part — executing official policy. Whether that happens is the focused concern of Bassam Ishak, the deputy chief of mission of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), an umbrella organization of Syrian resistance political parties that includes Kurds, Christian Syriacs, and others whom, Ishak says, support pluralism, religious freedom, and human rights. “I believe the new law is significant,” Ishak tells me in an email interview, but “legal authority needs to be translated into action.” In the past, “red tape has delayed support implementation,” but now “aid to religious minorities in Iraq and Syria can go directly to needy communities bypassing the UN.”
ISIS’s control may have been shattered militarily in Syria, but Ishak is worried now about possible persecution of non-Muslims by Turkey, one of the dominant powers in the region. To illustrate his cause for concern, he told me that Turkey, in March 2017, occupied the Syrian Kurdish town of Afrin and that “Christians were forced to flee and Yazidis, who stayed, were forced to convert to Islam or face death or deportation.” The more things change. . . .
Much remains to be done to protect religious minorities in a region that in recent years has seen precious little sectarian tolerance. That is why it is important to recognize the work done by non-profit organizations, such as the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, by members of Congress, such as Smith and Eshoo, who set aside partisan disagreements to stand unanimously for persecuted and martyred religious minorities, and by the Trump administration, which has paid greater attention to genocide based on faith in the region. There is at least modest hope that these persecuted people will receive the succor they desperately need and that the vicious perpetrators of crimes against their humanity will one day be brought to international justice.