WASHINGTON — Just one day after Iraq celebrated the anniversary of its total victory over the Islamic State terrorist army, President Donald Trump signed into law a new bill designed to provide dedicated U.S. support directly to the Christian and Yazidi victims of ISIS’ campaign of genocide.
“The law in itself is an achievement,” Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic Diocese of Erbil told the Register, saying it was “a victory for the victims and a recognition of the painful road they walked.”
Faith leaders and representatives of the indigenous Iraqi communities targeted for extinction gathered around President Trump in the White House Oval Office as he signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) into law Dec. 11.
The president passed out replica signing pens to each representative, but gave the pen he personally used to sign the long-awaited legislation to Archbishop Warda himself. Afterward, the archbishop gave the president a blessing in Aramaic, “the language of Jesus,” and recited the Lord’s Prayer.
The bipartisan law, sponsored by Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., will authorize and direct the federal government to fund organizations, including faith-based groups, that are on the ground providing Christian, Yazidi and other survivors targeted by ISIS the resources they need to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.
Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, attended the signing and told the Register the bipartisanship showed “the best that is America” and that the country was on the side of genocide victims.
“National strength is defending people who are defenseless,” Anderson said. “I think today really showed what is best about America, in a lot of ways.”
Liberation From ISIS
In 2014, ISIS had marched into Iraq from Syria, conquering a vast swath of land for its self-declared “caliphate.” The army inflicted vicious atrocities on non-Sunni peoples under its control, devastating the numerically small Christian and Yazidi communities. ISIS finally turned its reign of terror on the remaining Sunni Muslims.
Iraqi forces eventually liberated the Nineveh Plain and Mosul from ISIS, declaring victory over the so-called caliphate Dec. 10, 2017, and allowing Christians for the first time in four years to celebrate Christmas in the shattered city.
Since last year’s liberation of their ancestral homeland on the Nineveh Plain, Christians have been returning slowly. But without the infusion of serious capital, the destruction inflicted by ISIS across northern Iraq, along with other ethnic groups staking claims in their old villages due to their absence, has hindered the pace of their repatriation. The Nineveh Reconstruction Committee estimates the reconstruction will cost $250 million. (This estimate does not include Mosul, which was flattened by airstrikes and fierce house-to-house fighting to liberate the city.)
The population of Christians in Iraq is down significantly: Fewer than 200,000 Christians remain of the 500,000 estimated in Iraq before ISIS.
Archbishop Warda said there is no room for error: Christians need security and economic stability in order to have a future in Iraq, where they first received the Gospel nearly 2,000 years ago. The country needs reconciliation programs, he said, and Christians, with immediate support, can become “missionaries of reconciliation.”
Now that the U.S. has enshrined these commitments into law, the archbishop said what needs to follow is action.
“Any future minor problem will likely be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he said. “We are among the oldest Christians on Earth, and we will disappear within 10 years if there is no change for us.”
Strengthening Support Networks
Until now, the survival of Iraq’s indigenous Christian communities has relied upon an extended international network of Catholic charitable organizations, such as Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, who raised funds from their supporters and worked with the local Christian churches to help genocide survivors.
Aid to the Church in Need raised $100 million and helped jump-start the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee coordinating the restoration of their communities.
In Karamles, Christians will celebrate the Nativity of the Lord in a beautiful new church, the Mar Addai Chaldean Catholic Church, thanks in large part to the Knights of Columbus. The Knights dedicated themselves to the rebuilding of the town’s churches and homes, in coordination with the Archdiocese of Erbil, ever since the region’s liberation from ISIS.
Anderson explained the legislation will also bring about important regulatory reform that will enable the U.S. government to work with “entities on the ground the locals trust, that understand the local situation, and have a proven record of getting aid to the people who need aid.”
He said the law will cut out “middlemen” that have proved ineffective in getting assistance to Christians and Yazidis. Previously, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had preferred to work through the United Nations in providing support to refugees and internally displaced persons.
However, most Christians and Yazidis who fled ISIS avoided going into camps for the displaced over fears for their safety and did not register with the U.N. After ISIS was driven out, the U.N. still failed to provide the targeted assistance they needed to rebuild their presence before other ethnic groups moved into the void.
Rep. Smith told the Register that he resolved to write H.R. 390 after visiting Erbil in December 2016. During that visit he saw firsthand the desperate situation of the Christians who had been kept alive thanks to the local Church and international Catholic aid organizations.
“We met all these people whose lives had been saved by the Knights of Columbus, Caritas, and Aid to the Church in Need,” he said. “Without that, it was an unmitigated disaster.”
The next step will be appropriations amendments to fund the work, but Smith said federal agencies could draw from the billions in humanitarian aid available to get started. USAID Director Mark Green already made an on-site visit earlier in 2018 to assess for himself the need.
“Whatever the need is, this [law] is a major part of making sure that need is met,” Smith said.
Need Is Great
Edward Clancy, the director of outreach at Aid to the Church in Need (USA), told the Register that one of the main issues is the lack of infrastructure to make the villages habitable and economically viable again. They are still working on delivering the basics of 21st-century life: food, water, sanitation, electricity and mobile communications.
Clancy said the Yazidis have suffered enormously: Thousands of men and boys are buried in mass graves, and thousands of women and girls are traumatized as victims of sex slavery, he said. But one strength they have is their communities are still intact in Iraq. Christians are on the brink of extinction in Iraq, because nearly nine out of 10 Christians are no longer in their native lands.
Syria’s Christian population, Clancy said, has also suffered similar catastrophic losses, as Christians have fled the country’s violence.
Clancy said getting aid to Christians in Syria is difficult because the territory where they are safe, controlled by President Bashar Assad, is under U.S. sanctions.
Clancy hoped the bill would allow the federal government to work with entities to provide targeted aid to those communities in Syria. Otherwise, the sanctions put in place against President Assad could “do the work that Daesh did not complete.”
Preventing the Next Genocide
The new law also directs the federal government to evaluate and address the humanitarian conditions that might force survivors to flee their homelands entirely and identify the warning signs of deadly violence against the communities that have survived genocide in Iraq and Syria.
Archbishop Warda hopes the bill will make sure the history of the genocide is taught in schools, so that Iraqis will resolve never to allow these horrors to happen again.
“The history will be written by the victims this time,” he said.
The law also supports entities that will investigate, gather evidence and bring the perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Iraq to justice.
“The more we do this, the more it may have a chilling effect on others, because they know they will be hunted down,” Smith said.
The new law also marks a positive step toward repairing the devastation to indigenous Christians caused by years of violent strife in the region.
Anderson said the Knights will continue working with Christian communities on projects with private funding and also partner with USAID on various projects, sharing their experience working with churches.
“Our experience has been if you work with the local Church entities, they are very effective,” he said. “They are taking care of their people.”
With appropriate support, Archbishop Warda sees a continued future for Christians in Iraq. He made a pastoral visit to Telleskof, where one of his priests pointed to the young people at work as a sign of hope.
“They are full of energy. They would like to stay and rebuild their village.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.