Former presidential candidate and Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is being pressured by multiple religious freedom groups to lift a hold he placed on a bill that proponents say would benefit Christians and Yazidis who faced genocide at the hands of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
This week, Paul's office has received letters from the International Religious Freedom Roundtable — a politically diverse coalition of human rights advocacy organizations and activists — the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus and the county chairmen of the Kentucky Republican Party.
The letters all have the same basic message and call on the senator to lift the hold he placed on H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, earlier this year. A Senate hold is a procedure that allows a Senator to try to block a measure from reaching the floor for a vote but can be undone through a cloture motion.
A letter dated May 30 from the International Religious Freedom Roundtable was signed by 12 religious freedom NGOs and over 20 notable individual religious freedom advocates, including former Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, the namesake of the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act of 2016.
"In the summer of 2017, the bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives and out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Lifting the hold will allow for a vote on the consent calendar and we will be one step closer to providing recovery assistance to victims of the genocide committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)," the letters read. "The Christian, Yazidi and other minority communities we represent are either languishing in camps, some for almost three years, or choosing to seek refuge abroad because their towns and villages were decimated by ISIS."
As hundreds of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in Iraq and Syria or face the wrath of the brutal terrorist group in the summer of 2014, the bill's aim is to ensure that emergency relief is provided for victims of genocide and crimes against humanity in Iraq and Syria and also provide greater accountability for terrorists who have committed such crimes.
The bill would authorize the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development to provide assistance to support the efforts of entities and NGOs that "have access, and are capable of effectively managing and delivering such assistance, to the individuals."
The bill languishes as reports have indicated that religious minorities victimized by the Islamic State are still having trouble receiving aid from the U.S. government despite Vice President Mike Pence's promise last year that the U.S. would bypass the United Nations in providing aid to groups that support religious minority communities in Iraq and Syria.
H.R. 390 would authorize the State Department to provide assistance to groups with expertise in international criminal investigations to undertake activities "to address crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, and their constituent crimes, in Iraq since January 2014."
Additionally, it would require the secretary of state to report to congressional committees detailing the efforts that have been taken and efforts proposed to carry out the provisions of the bill. The report must also include the "feasibility and advisability" of prosecuting Islamic State jihadis for whom there is credible evidence of them having committed a war crime since 2014. The report would also detail the measures needed to "ensure effective criminal investigations" and "collect and preserve" evidence for prosecution.
Although the Islamic State has been pushed out of most of its territory in Iraq and Syria, the letters warned that the situation is still "dire" as families are struggling to meet the "basic needs for nutrition, health, and education without a proper humanitarian assistance."
"Presently there are over 300,000 internally displaced Yazidis and some 90,000 Christian IDPs residing in deteriorating camps intended to be temporary shelters in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq," the letters read. "With American help, these areas can redevelop and the native people can return. This not only helps all of Northern Iraq rebuild, but will deflect ISIS's attempt to erase these."
Although Paul initially supported the House version of H.R. 390, his hold on the measure comes as the bill was amended in February by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The amendment added several statements to the legislation that some critics say have "transformed" the bill entirely into "a Russia-bashing neocon bill that has little to do with genocide or with aid of any kind to victims of the Islamic State."
Among other things, the new language is critical of the Assad regime in Syria and puts blame on Iranian and Russian actors.
"The Governments of the Russian Federation and Iran have supported the Assad regime, perpetuated the conflict, and deployed tactics and strategies that have caused grave harm to civilians, including their conduct in the siege of eastern Aleppo which may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity," an updated version of the bill states.
Corker's version of the bill also includes a requirement for the State Department to consult with the Justice Department and other federal agencies to "complete a study of the feasibility and desirability of potential transitional justice mechanisms for Syria, including a hybrid tribunal, to address war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide perpetrated in Syria beginning in March 2011."
The study would lead to a "detailed report" of the study's findings and would have to include "recommendations on which transitional justice mechanisms the United States Government should support."
The Christian Post reached out to Paul's office for comment on the letters. A response is pending.
Philippe Nassif, executive director of the persecution advocacy charity In Defense of Christians and a supporter of the bill, told CP that Paul likely placed a hold on the measure because "language was added to the bill mentioning war crimes committed by the Assad regime."
Nassif said that it appears Paul doesn't like that language because it may be used as a "pretext to ramp involvement up in Syria."
William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, wrote in an op-ed last month that "the language in the bill was completely changed by Senator Corker to do little more than set up a 'study group' to determine the 'strategic interests' of the United States and how to 'counter' Russia."
"Under the language added by Senator Corker, Syrian Christians fighting with their government against the same Sunni Muslim jihadists who attacked them would be labeled 'war criminals,'" Murray argued. "Christians in Syria who received aid from the government of Russia or the Russian Orthodox Church would not meet the vetting process to enter the United States or to receive American aid. That would include just about every Christian remaining in Syria."
Responding to Murray's op-ed, Nassif disagreed with Murray's assessment of the language.
"Although this has nothing to do with the bill, let me go on record to say this: If a Christian in Syria is found to be guilty of abetting or committing war crimes against innocent civilians on behalf of the Assad regime, a rebel group, or any faction taking part in that civil war, then they should face justice as all war crimes perpetrators should," he told CP.
Nassif assured that H.R. 390 is a "great bill for Christians and Yazidis." He added that the "Assad and Syria portion [of the bill] fit nicely into the scope of legally going after those committing war crimes, whether they be by regimes or by terrorist groups such as ISIS."
"Sen. Rand Paul is not only a conspiracy theorist, but if this bill fails on the account he believes it will lead to some sort of larger American intervention in Iraq and Syria, a fear that has no basis in reality, then he will also single-handedly seal the fate of hundreds of thousands of ISIS genocide victims, Christians and Yazidis, for good," Nassif said. "These communities will vanish and Sen. Rand Paul will finish off what ISIS wanted all along — the eradication of these ancient peoples from their native lands."
Signatories of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable letter to Paul include groups like the Jubilee Campaign USA, the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, International Christian Concern, the Center for Pluralism, the Church of Scientology National Affairs Office and In Defense of Christians Action.
Individual signatories also include Liberty Counsel founder Mat Staver, Family Research Council's David Christensen and the Institute on Religion & Democracy's Faith McDonnell.