WASHINGTON — A lawyer who represents the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil has accused the United States government of "financing the spoils of genocide" through its reconstruction aid program that he says has benefited Muslims who settled into a once predominantly Iraqi Christian town following the rise of the Islamic State.
Stephen Rasche, an American who serves as legal counsel and director of IDP Resettlement Programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, testified at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on the Islamic State's genocide in Iraq on Tuesday along with a former Yazidi sex slave and other advocates for the oppressed Iraqi minorities.
Rasche told the panel that he already warned in a Capitol Hearing last year that Iraqi Christians are in dire need of aid and even laid out the ways in which Christians are being shut off from U.S. aid distributed through the United Nations. Despite the fact that Rasche made those statements well over a year ago, he explained that not much has changed under the Trump administration.
"I asked that the U.S. government hear our pleas for help, and warned that without this help, the Christians of the Nineveh Plain could very well disappear," Rasche told the lawmakers. "I wish that I could tell you that in the 12 months that followed that our pleas were heard, and that our plight has found relief. But as I speak before you now, I regret to say that we have still yet to receive any form of meaningful aid from the U.S. government."
Rasche's testimony comes as human rights advocates have complained for the last three years that a policy that requires U.S. humanitarian and reconstruction aid for Iraq be funneled through the United Nations has essentially cut off Christians, Yazidis and other religious minority communities victimized by the Islamic State's genocide from much needed aid.
The lawyer explained that now that the Islamic State has been pushed out of its stronghold in northern Iraq, the situation has reached a "historical inflection point" that will determine whether Christians will be able to return to their homes and rebuild and whether they will be able to survive in Iraq.
In order to rebuild destroyed infrastructure in their hometowns, Christian communities need more than just the aid they are receiving from the Church, private donors and humanitarian groups.
Like the over $1.4 billion in U.S. humanitarian assistance funding provided in Iraq since 2014, the over $265 million the U.S. has provided in reconstruction in Iraq has also been funneled through the U.N., via the U.N. Development Programme.
Although UNDP status reports have claimed to show progress in rebuilding majority-Christian towns, Rasche said there is "little evidence" of that work."
"Work projects are in most cases cosmetic in nature, and much of that cynically so. 'Completed"' school rehabilitation projects in Teleskov and Batnaya take the form of one thin coat of painting of the exterior surface walls, with freshly stenciled UNICEF logos every 30 feet. Meanwhile inside, the rooms remain untouched and unusable: there is no water, no power, and no furniture."
Rasche also contended that UNDP reports that claim to show reconstruction work being done in predominantly religious minority areas list work that has been done in the former Christian town of Telkayf.
"Mr. Chairman, there are no more Christians in Telkayf," Rasche asserted in his written testimony. "They were forced from this town by acts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. ISIS was firmly in control of this town until last fall and many of its Sunni Arab residents remained. Many of those residents, who openly welcomed ISIS while simultaneously engaging in the forced and violent expulsion of the majority Christians, are still there."
Additionally, Rasche warned that the former Christian town has been chosen as a "settlement site for the families of slain ISIS fighters."
"As such, 100 percent of the work being done in this town benefits the Sunni Arab residents of the town, and there is no consideration anywhere in U.N. aid planning for the displaced Christians, who now depend wholly upon the Church and private sources for their survival," Rasche added in his testimony. "This is well over 10,000 families. That such a representation could be made in the UNDP report, without even the barest attempt at an explanatory note, shows clearly the profound depth of disconnect between representation and reality. In effect, U.S. taxpayers are financing the spoils of genocide."
Rasche urged Congress to pass H.R. 390, also known as the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. The legislation, which was passed unanimously in the House earlier this year and passed in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September, calls on the U.S. government to ensure that humanitarian and recovery assistance allocated to Islamic State victims is provided to ethnic and religious minority communities in Iraq.
Rasche called the bill "a vital lifeline we have desperately needed for months."
Although the Trump administration has been strong in its condemnation of the Islamic State's genocide, the administration has so far been "unable to move the bureaucracy to take meaningful action" to ensure that Christians, Yazidis and other displaced minorities gain access to U.S. humanitarian aid without having to go to U.N. camps where they fear being persecuted by Muslims.
"Even in the new administration, career individuals at these agencies have continued to state that they are only concerned with individuals, not communities," Rasche explained. "They have asserted that directing assistance to particular religious or ethnic communities would be 'discrimination' and a 'violation of humanitarian principles,' even if these communities had been targeted for genocide and assistance was being directed to them to prevent their destruction."
Although Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2017 earlier this year that called for persecuted religious minorities in Iraq to have access to U.S. humanitarian aid, that act has seemingly been ignored by the State Department, human rights lawyer Nina Shea told The Christian Post last week.
Despite the fact that the U.S. government has shelled out over $1.4 billion in humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi crisis, "no aid has been provided to the imperiled Christian minority" or to organizations that care for displaced minorities, Rasche said.
He told the lawmakers that even though the Consolidated Appropriations Act was passed in Congress, he has been told that the act is superseded by the State Department's "own administrative interpretation of humanitarian principles."
"Interestingly, these 'principles' were waived last month when the Department of State's Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration provided $32 million in emergency humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya Muslims — a religious minority in Burma," Rasche pointed out.
"As an American, I am proud when my country responds to a humanitarian crisis, but this action begs the question of why the State Department, which has distributed over $220 million in humanitarian assistance in Iraq since 2014, has consistently ignored the dire needs of persecuted minorities in Iraq."