Religious leaders and human rights activists are rejoicing after President Donald Trump signed a bill that supporters say will “boost” efforts to help Christians and other religious minorities victimized by the Islamic State’s genocide in Iraq and Syria.
Surrounded by religious leaders and respected religious freedom advocates, Trump signed on Tuesday the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, bipartisan legislation that has taken nearly two years to pass in order to ensure support for religious minorities displaced in Iraq and Syria and accountability for IS terrorists responsible for the genocide.
“We hope that this will mean that we will now begin a time of sustained and clear help to our struggling minorities and also that we will see a focus on true justice and accountability for what has happened,” Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, whose archdiocese is responsible for aiding thousands of Christians displaced in Kurdistan, told The Christian Post.
The act authorizes the government to fund nonprofits, charities and NGOs — including faith-based groups — who are on the ground in Iraq and Syria directly involved in providing humanitarian and recovery aid to Christians and other religious minorities targeted by the terrorist group.
The act will also direct the U.S. government to address humanitarian needs that could drive the persecuted communities out of their homelands despite the fact that IS strongholds have been liberated. Additionally, the State Department will assist entities and NGOs that are looking to hold IS terrorists accountable through criminal investigations and the perseverance of evidence.
The bill’s signing comes as concerns had been raised earlier this year that Christian communities in Iraq were still struggling to receive aid from the U.S. government despite vows from Vice President Mike Pence to deliver much-needed aid to these communities.
Warda was among the many religious leaders invited to the Oval Office for the signing ceremony. He stood directly to the right of Trump in the Oval Office when the bill was signed and was given the pen Trump used to sign the bill.
“I have to say I found him very easygoing and approachable,” Warda wrote in response to email questions. “I said to him ‘Mr. President, we need to implement this bill as soon as possible and I know you can do it because you are a man who gets things done.’ He answered me directly ‘We will.’”
The bill was reintroduced in the House by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, an outspoken advocate for international religious liberty, in January 2017 after it failed to pass in the previous Congress.
It passed unanimously through the Senate in October and unanimously through the House in late November.
“While the Trump administration has been working to address the needs of those targeted by ISIS's genocidal campaign, this new law will give another boost to relief groups, including faith-based groups,” conservative evangelical activist Tony Perkins, who also sits on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in a statement. “Until recently, relief groups have been operating almost entirely on private donations. In winter, when diseases run rampant, even basic necessities like food, blankets, and medicine are rare.”
One of those relief groups that has aided in Iraq has been the U.S.-based Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, which has provided over $20 million to aid Christians and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria since 2014, including $2 million to help rebuild the Christian town of Karamdes.
“The legislation signed today again reminds us of America’s earlier efforts to aid victims of genocide — Christian communities targeted by Ottomans a century ago and Jewish survivors of Shoah,” Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson said in a statement.
Ever since hundreds of thousands of Christians were pushed out of their homelands because of the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014, there have been complaints that the U.S. government wasn’t doing enough to provide direct assistance to the churches and others responsible for providing aid to these displaced minority communities.
Although Pence vowed last fall that U.S. policy would be changed so that U.S. humanitarian assistance for Iraq wouldn’t run through the United Nations and would go directly to faith-based organizations, Warda voiced concern in June that aid still wasn’t reaching the persecuted Christians in Iraq.
He suggested that Christians in Erbil were “worse off now than we were two years ago” and that the only support for the displaced Christians was coming from the church. On Wednesday, Warda told CP that things have improved.
“There has been a noticeable change since August with the arrival of the special envoy from the vice president to oversee the aid program in Northern Iraq,” Warda said. “Aid has begun to move into the affected towns and people are beginning to see a difference. We are still waiting for some of the most important projects which we put forward but I understand that we will begin to see funding for these programs before Christmas from the joint program of USAID and the Knights of Columbus.”
In October, the U.S. Agency International Development agreed to work with Knights of Columbus to "facilitate partnerships to help communities in the Middle East recover from genocide and persecution” and connect the agency with local faith and community leaders.
As it has been about 18 months since Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plains were completely liberated, Warda said that much progress has been made in restoring power and water to most of the towns thanks to the help of private aid agencies. He added that while some progress has been made in restoring homes, there “is still a very long ways to go.”
“All of the towns still have many destroyed homes that need to be cleared, and many burned homes to be restored,” Warda explained. “Also, now that the road has just been opened to Batnaya and the people there can finally begin to return, we need to be working there because very little work has been done on homes so far and the town was very heavily damaged.”
Warda said that he and other leaders met with members of Congress in the past week to discuss ways to address affected religious minorities in a “holistic way,” not just based on geographic location. “For the Christians, this means we cannot forget about our populations outside of Nineveh, such as Baghdad and Erbil, because many of the displaced people are in these communities and they need our help as well,” he stated. “Also, a sustainable and vibrant presence for Christians in Iraq needs these important communities to survive.”
As has been widely reported, the Christian population in Iraq has dwindled from 1.5 million in 2003 to just about 200,000 today.
Although many Iraqi Christians have returned to their home villages, many remain displaced in Erbil and other areas in the Kurdish north as their homes have been destroyed. Other Christians from Mosul remain displaced, Warda said, because they are afraid to return to their homes out of fear that another jihadi group could repeat what the Islamic State did.
The Archdiocese of Erbil, which once provided shelter for thousands of displaced Christians, is no longer doing so as its funds to provide shelter have run out. Warda detailed that the archdiocese has put nearly all of its funds into the effort to return people to their home villages.
The archdiocese does still provide medical and food assistance. Additionally, it is caring for a “growing number of Christian refugees from Syria” who have come to Erbil.
“This number is now growing every day and so far we are not receiving any aid to help with the needs of these people,” Warda stated, as he also stressed the need for jobs.
“Many of the displaced people have not really worked in four years,” he said. “Especially for our young people, if we are going to keep them in Iraq, this is very critical.”