WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. House of Representatives from both political parties told Christian persecution activists Thursday that the U.S. government has a moral obligation to help the Christians and other religious minorities affected by the refugee crisis in Syria and Iraq and also detailed various proposed resolutions aimed at doing so.
As thousands of Christians are risking their lives to smuggle their families into Europe in order to escape from the violence of the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war, Christian activists gathered by In Defense of Christians met with a bipartisan group of Congress members on Capitol Hill to discuss the actions being taken by the U.S. government to aid asylum seekers and other persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Over 17 members of Congress spoke at the press conference and expressed displeasure with inaction taken by the Obama administration to provide refugees with protection and asylum. (On the same day, the White House announced plans to let 10,000 Syrian refugees into the United States, a six-fold increase from current levels.)
Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., asserted that American Christians have a scriptural obligation to speak out in the face of tyranny and take action to help the persecuted refugees who are simply looking to live and worship in peace.
"There is an urgency that brings us together and there is a sense of clarity and responsibility that we all have right now to be voices for those who have no voice," Roskam said. "Scripture tells us that we are one body and the body of Christ is in pain when another part is suffering. There is a real awareness here. I think what we have got to do is recognize as American Christians, that we have literally an obligation, not simply as Americans, but we have an obligation according to Scripture to speak out and do so in a way that uses the talents, opportunities and freedoms that we have."
As some families' attempts to escape persecution by paying human traffickers to get them into Europe have ended in numerous fatalities, Rep. Robert Dold, R-Ill., contended that the refugee crisis is not simply a "European issue."
"If we look at the people that are fleeing, that are willing to do just about anything to get out from underneath the persecution of ISIS, we are seeing people that are dying in their search for freedom so that they may be able to worship as they choose," Dold said. "That is one of the things that we in the United States State Department, we in the United States Congress, I believe, have an obligation to do more."
"This is not just a European issue, this is an issue that we here in the United States, as the lone superpower, have an obligation to step up and do something about it," Dold continued.
Although there are a numerous of American citizens that have indicated a desire to sponsor persecuted Syrian and Iraqi Christians in their quest for asylum, the U.S. State Department has made the process difficult for fleeing Christians to get into the country, as the agency doesn't want to issue visas disproportionately to Christians.
So far, the U.S. government has accepted just over 1,500 refugees from the Syrian crisis so far. On Thursday, the White House announced that it will prepare to allow at least 10,000 Syrian refugees to enter the U.S. in the next fiscal year.
Rep. Juan Vargas, D-Calif., said he introduced legislation into the House called the The Protection of Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act of 2015, which would give priority to Christians and other religious minorities seeking asylum from ISIS and would allow them to apply directly to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
"We have a big country, and we have a lot of space, and we have a lot of good hearts here. We should be able to accept each and every Christian and minority being persecuted in the Middle East to come here," Vargas said. "We have space. We absolutely should. There is no reason for people to be suffering when there is a place for them to go right here in our own country."
Although many refugees from Iraq and Syria are looking to flee from their homelands, there are many who simply want to return to their homes and villages. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., says the U.S. should be providing resources to provide security for those that wish to return to live in their ancient homelands. Sherman stated that he and Rep. Dave Trott, R-Mich., are creating a resolution to do just that.
"Our resolution focuses on the Assyrian, Chaldean, Yezidi, Syriac and Armenian communities and the need to provide assistance to refugees, but to provide security assistance to those who are trying to stay in their homeland," Sherman said. "It calls for the administration to work with the governments and with the communities on the Nineveh Plain, Kobani and Aleppo regions of Syria, and the Kurdistan region."
A resolution was introduced in the House yesterday by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., that calls on the U.S. government to label the atrocities committed by ISIS as "genocide." Most members who spoke at Thursday's meeting indicated that they are, or plan to become, co-sponsors to Fortenberry's resolution.
"History is tough on people who stay silent in the face of tyranny," Roskam said. "it is tough on people who stay silent in the face of genocide."
The press conference was one of a number of events for the In Defense of Christians conference, "Mobilizing America for Christians in the Middle East," taking place in Washington, D.C, Wednesday through Friday.