Lawmakers Press Trump Administration to Accelerate Aid to Religious Minorities in Iraq

Tillerson's recognition of ISIS 'genocide' tees up more action

A Syriac Christian militiaman stands guard on top of the Mar Yohanna in Qaraqosh / Getty Images
August 3, 2017

Key lawmakers and human rights activists who have spent the last three years trying to help religious minorities the Islamic State killed in Iraq are gratified by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's recent recognition of the persecution as genocide and want to ensure it translates into helping the communities survive on the ground.

Wednesday marks the third anniversary of the beginning of the ISIS massacre of Yazidis in the Sinjar district of Iraq, an offensive that left thousands of Yazidis killed or kidnapped and drew the United States into the fight against ISIS.

The Islamic State went on to target Christians and Shia Muslim groups, prompting hundreds of thousands of Christians to flee their ancestral homeland of Northern Iraq's Nineveh Plains.

After the Iraqi army recently retook Mosul from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. forces, lawmakers and activists say it is a critical time for Christians and other religious minorities to return to the area and rebuild their homes.

Reestablishing these communities in Northern Iraq would help protect those groups and combat colonization by pro-Iranian militias in an attempt to broaden their influence.

Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.), a leading advocate in Congress for these religious minorities in Iraq, on Wednesday applauded President Trump and Vice President Pence for their previous comments pledging U.S. assistance to these communities.

Smith also thanked Tillerson for making a statement through his spokeswoman last week recognizing the ISIS persecution against Yazidis, Christians, and other minorities for the first time after an uproar in Congress and the human rights community questioning whether he and others at State were trying to avoid the use of the word genocide.

Tillerson's statement helped dispel deep concern among lawmakers and activists that he was allowing Obama holdovers at State to remove, prevent or suppress the use of the word genocide in reference to ISIS slaughter of Yazidis, Christians, and others ethnic minorities, as the Washington Free Beacon first reported early last week.

"Thank you to the president, vice president and secretary of state for making it crystal clear—there is an ongoing genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities," Smith said.

"Time is running out on-the-ground for us to help these communities survive in their ancient homelands," he said. "I urge my colleagues in the Senate to immediately take up and pass my legislation, H.R. 390—legislation designed to ensure humanitarian, stabilization and recovery aid gets to these genocide survivors."

Rep. Trent Franks (R., Ariz.), another leading voice on the issue, thanked Tillerson on Monday for affirming the genocide, posting on social media about the issue.

"Thank you, Rex Tillerson, for telling the truth—there is a 'genocide' occurring in Iraq," he tweeted.

"I want to thank him for telling the truth about what’s happening in the Middle East, despite pressures from within," Franks said on Facebook.

Before they were aware of Tillerson’s statement affirming the genocide designation, a bipartisan group of 50 House members led by Smith, Franks, and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, (R., Neb.) sent Tillerson a letter Friday morning.

The letter followed a similar one sent by six GOP senators and led by Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) on Thursday.

They House members asked if State Department staff were attempting to "undermine and rollback" Secretary John Kerry's much heralded determination last March that ISIS was committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities.

"If true, we hope you would agree with us this this is unacceptable and must be rejected," the lawmakers wrote, noting that they have been encouraged that President Trump and Pence have publicly acknowledged and denounced this "genocide" in statements in recent months.

Numerous House Republicans, including Reps. Michael McCaul of Texas and Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, as well as many senior Democrats, including Reps. Adam Schiff (Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), and Sandy Levin (Mich.) signed the letter.

The lawmakers also noted that House and Senate resolutions recognizing the ISIS mass murders of these populations as genocide passed both chambers unanimously in 2016.

They pointed to the three-year anniversary this week of ISIS's brutal offensive in Yazidi homeland of the Sinjar Mountains followed by the overtaking of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city and the path of destruction ISIS left after "murdering, crucifying, enslaving, displacing and otherwise terrorizing thousands of religious and ethnic minorities, whose roots in these lands are ancient."

"As we approach this solemn anniversary, there should be no questions regarding the commitment of the United States and other countries to provide the humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery assistance necessary to ensure long-term viability of these ancient communities who continue to be attacked," they wrote.

"It is incumbent that the administration speaks with a clear voice, affirming the designation of genocide while providing—and prioritizing—assistance to these communities subjected to genocide," they urged.

Earlier this year, the House passed a bill, authored by Smith and Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.), that would allow Catholic charities active in Iraq and the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, which have been housing and feeding thousands of Christian and Yazidi refugees, to receive U.S. funds. Channeling U.S. funds to religious groups was not allowed during the Obama administration, the activists say.

In early May, Congress allocated $1.3 billion in funds for refugee assistance and included language aimed at ensuring that a significant portion of the money is used to assist persecuted minorities—all groups the State Department deemed victims of genocide in 2016.

Additionally, in late July Fortenberry wrote new language for the House Appropriations bill aimed at accelerating the implementation of the U.S. aid to these communities in Iraq who are victims of genocide as designated by the secretary of State.

The Obama administration had resisted attempts to prioritize U.S. aid to these religious minority communities, and lawmakers and activists hoped the Trump administration would make the necessary changes to the way U.S. aid is distributed to help prevent the extinction of these groups from Iraq, where they have lived since antiquity.

The Knights of Columbus, a global Catholic charity, has met regularly with the Trump administration to try to help release the relief funds Congress has already tried to direct to these communities in Iraq.

In the interim, the Knights of Columbus earlier this week announced a pledge to raise and donate $2 million to rebuild the Iraqi city of Karamdes, a town in the Nineveh Plains liberated from ISIS late last year.

Their hope is that Christians and other religious minorities will be able to move back to homes in Karamdes and rebuild their lives. The group designed the donation similarly to one by the government of Hungary, which recently donated $2 million to try to save the predominately Christian Iraqi town of Teleskov.

According to the Knights, 1,000 families have now moved back to that town, providing a model that such relief efforts can work in restoring pre-ISIS populations to their ancestral homelands.

A key State Department official said on Tuesday that State is committed to help stabilize Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minority communities in Iraq and Syria and reiterated the statement from Tillerson’s spokesman last week that the secretary "firmly" acknowledges that ISIS is responsible for the genocide.

"And, of course, we recognize the genocide ISIS perpetrated against the Yazidis, Christians and others with the spokesperson saying last week that the secretary firmly believes that genocide happened," said Knox Thames, the State Department's Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia.

Thames was participating in a U.S. Institute of Peace panel discussion on the plight of religious minorities in Iraq.

"We're at pivot point—this is a moment of great opportunity and great peril with ISIS being pushed out," he said. "We have an opportunity to see conditions recreated where all Iraq’s minorities … can live together to protect this beautiful diversity that once was."

"So we are certainly committed to doing anything we can in that regard at the State Department," he added.

Naomi Kikoler, a deputy director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said that the State Department needs to follow up its genocide affirmation with action.

It is important, she said, that "when we talk about the language of genocide or ethnic cleansing that there’s actual action in accordance with that."

"If we are concerned about protecting these communities, we have to be invested in rebuilding Nineveh and resolving the political disputes and ensuring that the governance that is needed is there to protect those particular communities," she said.