The savagery of the Islamic State’s two-year assault on Christian and Yazidi men, women and children led the Obama administration to declare that the terrorist organization had committed genocide against religious minorities in the Middle East.
The March 17, 2016, designation of ISIS’ campaign as a crime against humanity, followed by a bipartisan genocide resolution passed by Congress, inspired fresh hope that the terrorists’ victims would finally obtain the security, legal protection and humanitarian assistance they needed before they could return to their ancestral communities.
Yet today, with the terrorist organization holding just 5% of the territory it once dominated in Iraq and Syria, displaced Iraqis in Erbil and those returning to shattered neighborhoods elsewhere have received little or no assistance from the U.S. government or the United Nations.
Instead, they depend on the generous, but limited, services covered by the Knights of Columbus and other faith-based nonprofits like Aid to the Church in Need and Catholic Relief Services, working in tandem with local Church leaders and Caritas.
If this desperate state of affairs continues, Catholic leaders and activists have warned, these Christians, who have too few means to rebuild their own lives, and Christianity, with its two-millennia-old heritage, will likely be extinguished from the Middle East — just as ISIS had planned.
This watershed moment should prompt an examination of conscience in the corridors of power in Washington, the chanceries of U.S. dioceses and the homes of the faithful. And to aid that process of critical spiritual and moral reflection, advocates for persecuted Christians have organized a week of prayer and activism this month that will highlight the crisis facing our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.
“What we have seen and witnessed is not merely a violation of religious rights and not simply religious persecution,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore told the Register. “We have seen … genocide based on religion. There are Muslim minorities and other religious minorities, but by far the largest group is of the Christian faith,” added the archbishop, who served as the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious freedom from 2011 to 2017.
Like many advocates for persecuted Christians, the Baltimore archbishop expressed frustration with Washington’s response to the genocide designation.
“The aid was being distributed primarily through the U.N. and by USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development],” Archbishop Lori said, “but it wasn’t reaching these persecuted Christians.”
A coalition of U.S. lawmakers, Church groups and activists has mounted an uphill battle to change U.S. policy and provide specific aid to genocide victims. The coalition includes the Knights of Columbus, which already has raised millions of dollars to aid genocide victims, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, and Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., who have sponsored critical legislation designed to help religious minorities targeted by ISIS: H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017.
In late October, this coalition’s hard-fought efforts secured a key victory. Vice President Mike Pence announced that the Trump administration would now depend on USAID to funnel aid to genocide victims. “Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands where it first grew,” the vice president said. “Help is on the way.”
The new policy will take effect by March, with the expectation that USAID will direct federal dollars to faith-based organizations, which will partner with other international and local Church groups to assist embattled religious minorities.
This policy change marks a long-overdue course correction for Washington, which has until now let the U.N. manage outreach to genocide victims despite vocal complaints from critics. Last month, for example, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) released its “Iraq Stabilization for Nineveh Report,” which claimed that a sizable number of its projects assisted Christian areas. But local Church authorities contend that members of their flocks are not living in many of the localities identified as “Christian.” They also note long-standing problems with poorly executed projects, due to a pervasive lack of accountability.
Additional concerns are outlined in a formal response to the UNDP report by the Church-based coalition In Defense of Christians, which boasts Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York among its advisers.
The good news is that the administration’s new policy will likely give Church groups a significant oversight role, and that will provide a better level of accountability as new projects are initiated. Advocates for embattled religious minorities have also welcomed a policy shift that acknowledges the specific needs of communities under threat of genocide.
“Trusting religious organizations with funds to aid refugees of their own religion” is important on a humanitarian level, Cardinal Dolan told the Register. “These folks are on the front lines. They know where the people are suffering,” and they “can get the aid to them quickly.”
In recent years, U.N. and senior U.S. government officials have justified their muted response to the plight of these vulnerable communities with the explanation that they have “prioritized individual needs, not group needs,” Supreme Knight Carl Anderson noted in a March column for The Washington Post. “This means that, when being considered for aid or resettlement, those who are the targets of genocide do not have their status as communities marked for extermination taken into account.”
Yet in past decades, Washington offered generous help to groups of people who were victims of genocide, including the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, Anderson pointed out. And this September, after an estimated 400,000 Rohingya Muslims fled violence in Myanmar, the U.S. State Department said it would provide $32 million in humanitarian assistance to the religious minority in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Church leaders have properly and consistently pressed for the humanitarian needs of all religious groups. But Washington’s quick action on behalf of the Rohingya provides sharp contrast with its largely ineffective response to predominantly Christian communities that face genocide in Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, the festering humanitarian and security crisis in the Middle East reminds us that the work initiated by the Knights of Columbus and Rep. Smith isn’t over yet. Some would say it is just beginning. The U.S. Senate must still pass its version of H.R. 390 and thus give legislative support for aid to ISIS’ victims.
“Pastors should address this from the pulpit,” George Marlin, the president of Aid to the Church in Need, told the Register. In addition, Church leaders have called for Sunday, Nov. 26, the Solemnity of Christ the King, to be a “Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians” (see EWTN broadcast information that follows).
The entire Church — pastors and their flocks — is encouraged to “express their solidarity through prayer, sacrifices” and financial help for Christian communities that face enormous hardship. “We must fight,” said Marlin, “to keep the Christian presence in the Middle East.”
PRAY FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS
EWTN will air a HOLY HOUR FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS Nov. 26 at 8pm Eastern. And a MASS FOR PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS will be celebrated Nov. 28 at 6pm Eastern and shown on EWTN. It is a Chaldean Catholic memorial Mass for Christian victims of ISIS’ genocide from the St. John Paul II National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq, will be the main celebrant and homilist.