On March 17, 2016, then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry announced to the world that the Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. It was an important statement, because it was only the second time our government had declared genocide in an ongoing situation — the first was Darfur, where some estimate that more than 300,000 people have been killed to date.
Congress, too, spoke, with the House passing a resolution March 14 that the Islamic State was committing genocide against religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, by a vote of 393 to 0. The Senate unanimously followed suit later last year.
The Rev. Douglas Bazi, then stationed in Irbil in Kurdistan, ran a refugee center there for Christians displaced from the Nineveh Plain. He knew well the kidnapping, torture and confiscation they had endured because he himself had been captured and tortured in Baghdad in 2009 by a different group of extremists. Sitting with me in the gallery of Congress as the bipartisan genocide resolution passed, he said using the right vocabulary was the “first right step.” But, he added, it needed to be followed up with the right action.
One year after our country used the right word, he and the other Iraqi Christians are still waiting for the next step: meaningful action.
Despite the genocide designation, our government spent the rest of 2016 operating on a business-as-usual basis. The largest displaced Christian community in Iraq — in Irbil — received no U.S. government or U.N. aid before the genocide designation. And they have received none since.
On a visit to Iraq last spring, one of our executives spoke to Yazidis who said they had been similarly overlooked.
Both the U.N. and the senior U.S. government officials there told our representative that this was the case because they prioritized individual needs, not group needs. When pressed, they admitted that they did not take into account the needs of communities — even if they had suffered genocide. 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.
Unfortunately, ignoring the identity of these targeted groups plays into the hands of genocidal regimes. Such an attitude could well be a death sentence for these minority communities. What the Islamic State couldn’t accomplish, misguided aid policies just might: eliminating entire ethnic and religious minority groups from their historic homes.
The region’s Christians seem to be reaching a tipping point. Estimates vary, but the Christian population of Iraq has fallen from more than 1 million to less than 250,000 in recent years due in large part to the onslaught of the Islamic State. Syria’s Christian population has fallen precipitously as well. For these historic religious communities, extinction is a real possibility.
Dating back to World War I, the United States has rightly extended a helping hand to threatened groups. Armenian and other Middle Eastern Christians targeted by the Ottoman Empire received tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid from the U.S. government and the American people, and Jewish survivors of the Holocaust received priority in resettlement. More recently, America has helped survivors of the Darfur genocide in the aftermath of their ordeal. The U.S. government has put more than $7 billion into Sudan since 2003, and USAID alone has provided more than $2.7 billion in humanitarian assistance for Darfur in that time frame, according to the organization Genocide Watch.
But in Iraq, many genocide survivors are still waiting for help. The tens of thousands of displaced Christians in Irbil, and Yazidis that Christians are caring for there, have received no U.S. government assistance — despite being direct targets of the Islamic State’s genocide.
Allowing these current genocide survivors to suffer for the past two years has been a gross injustice and a blight on America’s foreign policy record. Overlooking these people after a declaration of genocide is unconscionable, and in fact, it is de facto discrimination against the Islamic State’s most vulnerable victims.
Since the 2016 election, Iraqi Christian leaders have reported that they perceive a new openness to helping them among American officials. This is commendable. Now openness should become concrete action.
Just less than a year ago, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump said: “We left Christians subject to intense persecution and even genocide.” He added: “We have done nothing to help the Christians in the Middle East. Nothing. And we should always be ashamed for that lack of action.” He was right that our country should be ashamed of how little it has done. And while his administration inherited this problem, now it is in a position to fix it. The Trump administration should right the wrongs these shattered communities have endured through our country’s inaction by immediately taking three helpful steps.
First, ensure that no community that suffered genocide is overlooked by — or excluded from — U.S. government aid programs. At a minimum, we should do here what we did for Darfur through USAID. Second, the United States must demand that the United Nations also assist all communities that suffer genocide by including them in humanitarian and reconstruction aid. And finally, we should continue to work with the international community to defeat the Islamic State and bring the perpetrators of this genocide to justice.
Congress should also act by swiftly passing H.R. 390 — the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act — co-sponsored by Reps. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.). This bill would help ensure that much-needed aid reaches these decimated communities. Under this legislation, the U.S. government would be required to direct some aid to entities specifically assisting displaced people from communities of religious and ethnic minorities targeted for genocide.
The new administration should begin to right this wrong and chart a different course. It can quickly end this de facto discrimination, and in so doing, help save ancient ethnic and religious communities that otherwise could cease to exist.