WASHINGTON — Over the past weekend, jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — known as ISIS, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and most recently as IS (Islamic State) — fresh from their brutal expulsion of Christians from Mosul, swept into several northern Iraqi towns, including two with a large community of Yazidis, another religious minority with ancient roots.
Before the close of the weekend, an estimated 200,000 Yazidis had left their homes in Sinjar for the mountains with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and a smaller group of Christians were also on the move, victims of the militants’ policy of religious cleansing.
The Washington Post has since reported that tens of thousands of Yazidis are stranded on top of Mount Sinjar, and a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament alerted followers on Twitter that the harsh conditions resulted in the deaths of 70 children.
Meanwhile, IS successfully pushed back Kurdish security forces, which sought to defend one of the region’s largest dams, raising fears that IS could not only punish more religious minorities by shutting off power — a tactic it has used before — but possibly flood whole towns in northern Iraq.
The Islamic State’s rapid advance over the weekend fueled anxiety that Kurdistan, which is now harboring an estimated 1 million displaced Iraqi Christians and has thus far maintained secure borders, could also fall victim to the IS juggernaut.
On Capitol Hill, the latest news underscored the urgent need for a Washington-led strategy that could work out a regional plan for relief, protection and resettlement of displaced Iraqis. But the White House’s silence on the issue and the problems posed by its parallel effort to establish a multisectarian “unity” government that can bring together Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities, as well as religious minorities, have hampered efforts to respond to the crisis.
“We are facing real genocide, but all the world has been silent, especially what we call the ‘First World,’” said Syriac Catholic Bishop Barnaba Yousif Habash, based in New Jersey, who has written President Barack Obama and visited both the State Department and Capitol Hill, pleading for U.S. action.
Now, Bishop Habash said during an Aug. 5 interview with the Register, “I don’t trust anyone in the American administration. I don’t have any expectations that they will help.”
However, shortly after Bishop Habash offered his bitter response to the president’s policy, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, issued a statement that condemned the Islamic State’s latest actions and insisted that the administration was committed to helping “the Iraqi Security Forces and [Kurdish] Peshmerga Forces working to defend these areas against ISIL.”
Stated Power, “We urge all parties to the conflict to allow safe access to the United Nations and its partners so they can deliver lifesaving humanitarian assistance.”
She said the administration has not abandoned the Iraqi people and urged their leaders to “move swiftly to form a new, fully inclusive government that takes into account the rights, aspirations and legitimate concerns of all of Iraq’s communities.”
‘We Must Act’
Yet, over the summer, as ISIS gained territory in Syria and Iraq — and now, over the weekend, in Lebanon — Power and other members of the Obama administration have been criticized for failing to respond to warnings of the militants’ growing strength and extremist ideology.
“Will we act before every Christian in Iraq is exterminated or turned into a refugee? The president’s indifference is both numbing and enabling,” Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., told the Register. “We must act.”
Neither President Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry has specifically addressed the plight of Iraqi Christians. However, the White House hosted a meeting of Iraqi Christians last week, and Speaker of the House John Boehner organized a similar gathering, which included 10 House members and church-affiliated aid groups like Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which is already providing assistance in Iraq.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a leading advocate for religious freedom in the House, was at the meeting called by Boehner, and he confirmed during an interview with the Register that the White House still has not outlined a comprehensive strategy for assisting and protecting the displaced Iraqis.
“The administration has done nothing … even after the news that the Kurds fell back for the first time,” said Wolf.
On Aug. 4, Wolf released an open letter to President Obama that outlined action items that could make the issue a U.S. foreign-policy priority.
He asked Obama to sign bipartisan legislation that “creates a special envoy to promote religious freedom in the Middle East that has been sitting on your desk for the last week.” And the congressman called for the appointment of “a senior official in your administration to be the lead person coordinating all of the U.S. government resources necessary to stop this genocide.”
Wolf’s letter echoed a key goal of Church-affiliated aid groups: provide U.S. humanitarian assistance through “trusted NGOs — like Catholic Relief Services ... who are already on the ground trying to help but need U.S. assistance and leadership to reach more people.”
In his letter, Wolf said the president should “direct the secretary of state and USAID administrator to reprogram existing funds to provide these resources to trusted NGOs on the ground,” a demand that reflected frustration with the Iraqi government’s failure to effectively funnel U.S. aid to displaced people through non-governmental organizations.
William O’Keefe, senior director of advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, who joined the meeting organized by Speaker Boehner, told the Register that his organization has directly funded emergency relief and is also working closely with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and other U.S. agencies.
“CRS has committed about $1 million of our own funds through September, and another $1 million for the following 12 months, to make sure the basics are covered,” he said. “Our partner is Caritas Iraq. We are providing food, water and a basic household kit, which includes cooking and hygiene supplies. That is for immediate needs.”
He said CRS sought to expand its outreach to an estimated 1.2 displaced Iraqis and was “in discussions with U.S. government donors [to develop] a short-term and medium- and long-term response.”
However, O’Keefe said that “overall U.S. government coordination” of humanitarian outreach “needs higher level attention. The president should be talking about what is going on there and put in place a regional strategy.”
“You can see why people are frustrated,” he added. Events on the ground are “very fast-moving: An estimated 200,000 people were displaced over the weekend, and 650,000 fled Mosul around June 9, when ISIS took the city.”
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, who participated in the House meeting, emphasized the need for leadership from the White House.
Part of the problem, Shea and others suggested, is that the Obama administration is wary of providing the level of protection the Kurds might now require to bolster their borders and resist future incursions by IS militants. Indeed, the president has already signaled that he wants to delay any substantive action regarding Iraqi until a new unity government is formed in Baghdad, and the timeline for that is unclear.
“They are waiting for Iraq to have a unity government to select a new prime minister,” said Shea. “We are paralyzed.”
As IS secures additional territory, the likelihood that Iraqi Christians will be able to remain in their homeland continues to fade.
Shea recalled that the Boehner meeting included a wide-ranging discussion of possible locations where displaced Christians could be resettled in Iraq or Kurdistan and a review of the services needed to smooth that hard-going transition. But the discussion left some participants raising questions about the feasibility of carrying out such a plan.
Thus, Shea expressed her fear that it might “be over for religious minorities in Iraq.”
“The Church wants the Iraqi Christians to stay, but they will need to be propped up with a new infrastructure, jobs and government services,” she said. “It is not clear that any of that will exist in Kurdistan or Basra, in southern Iraq.”
She noted, however, that the “consensus among the members of Congress was that the U.S. should offer asylum, like France has done.”
With IS amassing power, Shea noted that the ongoing protection of Iraq’s vulnerable minority groups — those forced from their neighborhoods and those still in their homes — is a major concern. She proposed that the U.S., with its superior intelligence capabilities, should provide an “early warning system” that would alert Christians and others when IS militants pose an immediate threat.
Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, went a step further than Shea and called for the White House to "propose an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in order to consider a resolution, to be offered by the U.S., authorizing the use of force in Iraq and Syria to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place and to prevent genocide."
Calls for U.S. Military Assistance
Bishop Habash, who also expressed doubts that displaced Christians would choose to stay in their homeland — given the trauma inflicted by IS and the unlikely possibility that they will be able to return to their homes — said he has heard from Christians who believe the U.S. military should provide backup support to help the Kurds repel the militants.
Edward Clancy, the director of evangelization for Aid to the Church in Need, which has joined with Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad to call for Aug. 6 to be World Day of Prayer for Peace in Iraq, said his organization, which has focused on developing a secure water supply for displaced Christians, would take no position on the issue of military assistance.
“The Church’s view is that war and military intervention would be a last resort,” said Clancy.
CRS’ William O’Keefe said his Church-affiliated agency, as a humanitarian organization, would not associate itself with calls for U.S. military involvement.
But O’Keefe emphasized that the Kurds have been “generous with Christians. They have provided safe harbor, protection and security on the Nineveh Plain — in an area outside of Kurdistan that is not controlled by ISIS.”
“How long that hospitality will last, I won’t speculate,” he said, “but it has been extremely important to the Christian community.”
Will Washington act quickly enough to keep Kurdistan, and the displaced Christians it has welcomed, safe from ISIS?
In an Aug. 6 article posted on The New Yorker website, George Packer said he had just learned that the administration had begun providing military assistance to the Kurds.
Packer's sources told him that "the U.S. is, in fact, sending arms to the Kurds — just not openly." Reportedly, the "U.S. Joint Operation Center in Erbil is helping peshmerga ground troops and the Iraqi air force to coordinate attacks on ISIS, providing intelligence from the sky."
Packer applauded the news, but expressed regret that "the weapons didn’t reach the peshmerga in time to defend" the militants' latest victims.
The news of a U.S. policy change on military assistance, if confirmed, will hearten advocates for Iraqi Christians, like Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, who have been deeply dismayed by the administration's inaction.
Today, Kassab was pleased to receive an invitation to a Sept. 7 Emergency Summit on the Crisis in the Middle East in Washington, organized by the White House.
“I think the meeting will touch on four areas — Gaza, Egypt, Syria and Iraq," said Kassab, who noted that Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, will give the keynote address.
Kassab plans to attend the summit and said he will use the opportunity to “raise awareness of the plight of Christians in Iraq."
He will also endorse the need for U.S. military assistance.
“I am advocating for that to empower the Kurdish and Iraqi armies, to create a strong response force with equipment, training and intelligence,” said Kassab, “capable of fighting back.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.