President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Tuesday that will help channel U.S. humanitarian and rebuilding assistance to Christians, Yazidis, and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria who were the victims of ISIS genocide.
The measure, which comes after nearly a year and a half of lobbying from various humanitarian groups, ensures that the U.S. aid may come through the federal government or other entities, including faith-based groups.
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It also enables the State Department, in collaboration with other federal agencies, to conduct criminal investigations and apprehend individuals identified as alleged ISIS members, and to identify warning signs of genocide and threats of persecution.
Additionally, it encourages foreign governments to identify suspected Islamic State perpetrators in security databases and security screenings to assist with their capture and prosecution.
"The legislation signed today again reminds us of America's earlier efforts to aid victims of genocide—Christian communities targeted by Ottomans a century ago and Jewish survivors of Shoah," said Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, the largest Catholic service organization.
The Knights have played a critical role in advocating for greater relief for persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East and documenting the ISIS genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities in the Middle East.
"With the legislation signed today, America speaks with bold moral clarity and political unanimity," he added.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal entity established by Congress, commended Trump for signing the bill, saying it would aid communities "who desperately need our help."
"Through this bill we see the message that those responsible for these crimes, including genocide, will not escape justice," said USCIRF Vice Chair Kristina Arriaga. "I also commend Reps. Chris Smith and Ann Eshoo for their commitment and hard work to craft this legislation and help ensure its passage."
Smith is a Republican from New Jersey and Eshoo is a California Democrat. The bill was cosponsored by 45 other members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. The measure passed the House Nov. 28 after sailing through the Senate in early October.
The piece of the legislation allowing faith-based groups working in the region to receive the U.S. aid directly changes the prior policy of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, which argued for a "religion-blind" policy of distributing funds mainly to the United Nations.
Christian groups and those advocating for persecuted Yezidis and other minorities said the policy change was needed to better serve the communities decimated by ISIS.
Some of these same groups worked closely on the ground with the persecuted groups to document the ISIS mass killings. The State Department, during the Obama administration, cited their findings when coming to the determination that the ISIS persecution amounted to genocide, an international legal term which obligates countries to take certain actions to address.
After the State Department appeared intractable in denying the U.S. aid to faith-based groups working in Iraq and Syria, Vice President Mike Pence in the fall of 2017 and pledged to shift U.S. policy to allow it, issuing an executive order designed to repeal the religion-blind policy.
Pence made his promise during a speech at the In Defense of Christians annual Solidarity Dinner highlighting the plight of persecuted Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Pence became incensed over the State Department's bureaucratic attempts to thwart the White House executive order in the months following his promise. He said in July he would not tolerate the delays in implementing the administration's "vision to deliver the assistance we promised to the people we pledged to help" and dispatched USAID Administrator Mark Green to Iraq to ensure the U.S. taxpayer dollars were going to help rebuild the Christian and Yazidi communities.
The Knights of Columbus signed a memorandum of understanding with USAID in October outlining how religious minorities are to be assisted in the rebuilding of their communities. The Knights also worked in conjunction with the U.S. government to de-escalate tensions between the Kurdistan and Iraqi governments that threatened a recently rebuilt Christian town.