Elephants in the Room
We Are Witnessing the Elimination of Christian Communities in Iraq and Syria
It's time for the United States to act.
Do we want to be the generation that stood by as Christians disappeared almost entirely from the ancient homelands they have occupied since the days of the New Testament?
Will the Trump administration and this Congress let this historic and preventable tragedy happen on their watch?
We are on the precipice of catastrophe, and unless we act soon, within weeks, the tiny remnants of Christian communities in Iraq may be mostly eradicated by the genocide being committed against Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Other global crises such as North Korea’s nuclear adventurism may be dominating the headlines, but this tragedy has been unfolding in agonizing slow motion over the past decade, an unintended consequence of the turmoil and sectarian strife unleashed by the Iraq war of 2003. Saddam Hussein was hardly a protector of Christians, but the power vacuum that came after his fall made the plight of Christians in Iraq dramatically worse. The George W. Bush administration tried to help persecuted Christians and other religious minorities, but had its hands full avoiding defeat in the larger civil war. Whatever respite Bush’s surge decision bought soon gave way under the Obama administration to an even more terrible extermination campaign launched by the Islamic State, leading to a charnel house of death and displacement for Christians. In turn, the Obama administration found itself making its own painful tradeoffs as it tried to fight the Islamic State while relying on local militias that had designs on Christian lands. The result was an accelerated Christian exodus and extermination of those who stayed behind.
Bureaucrats in the Obama administration compounded the problem by blocking efforts to direct some funding to help local church groups and other religious organizations that were providing almost all of the humanitarian assistance to the suffering Christian communities. Their rationale stemmed from a benighted misinterpretation of humanitarian principles and a desire to avoid the appearance of favoritism when there were so many suffering groups. Such head-scratching punctiliousness prevailed despite the Obama administration’s own public recognition that the Christian and other religious minorities like Yazidis were the victims of genocide and faced extinction unless they were helped.
The counter-Islamic State campaign launched belatedly by Obama and intensified under Trump is reclaiming land, but the Christian minorities are benefiting little from U.S. and U.N. humanitarian and stabilization assistance. The other various factions in the anti-Islamic State coalition seem all too willing to entertain other plans for the newly freed territories. Some communities, such as the tiny Christian pockets in Mosul, are almost certainly lost forever. A few nascent Christian villages in the Nineveh Plains are clinging to viability, beginning the painful process of rebuilding with funds donated principally by a few international relief organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, and the Hungarian government, and kept alive by emergency aid from the local Catholic and Orthodox dioceses.
Years of humanitarian assistance through the local Catholic and Orthodox churches have provided food, shelter, medical and educational assistance for Christian, Yazidi, and some Muslims internally displaced people and refugees, but those resources have been exhausted and now the eyes of the local communities have turned to Washington, where American political leaders are considering stepping up with significant humanitarian assistance from the U.S. government.
The clearest, best path to rescue involves the bipartisan H.R. 390 – “Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017,” co-authored by representatives Chris Smith and Anna Eshoo, which would explicitly authorize the Trump administration, and future administrations, to direct some existing funds for immediate assistance on the ground to religious and ethnic minority communities that have been victims of genocide. Its passage would also to signal to our local partners the priority the United States places on protecting these most vulnerable victims from extinction. Despite passing unanimously in the House, the legislation has languished in the Senate. Unless Senator Bob Corker, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senate leadership recognizes the existential urgency for genocide survivors on the ground and therefore prioritize moving on H.R. 390 now — or unless other entrepreneurial senators figure out a way to act regardless — this bill may fall victim to the Senate’s already overcrowded calendar (made even more crowded by the obvious and all-consuming-crisis of Hurricane Harvey relief). The White House should send an unequivocal message to Corker and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging them to act on H.R. 390 and ensure it is transmitted to the Senate floor as a top-level priority after reconvening this week.
An additional path would be for the Trump administration to use existing congressional authorization for the fiscal year 2017 omnibus, along with executive prerogatives, to direct urgent aid and assistance to imperiled Middle Eastern Christians and Yazidis now. Their plight is a tragedy that many on the Trump team understand viscerally, and many senior officials have spoken of their concern for the issue, beginning with president himself (see also here, and here).
But the administration has multiple other challenges vying for its attention, so dealing with this one will require focus and perseverance — and perhaps some explicit guidance to overcome resistance at lower levels in the bureaucracy, especially at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, about acting on behalf of endangered religious and ethnic minority communities in this way.
Meanwhile, the Senate should confirm Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom as soon as possible, so that he can join the State Department’s capable Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia in serving as Foggy Bottom’s lead advocates on this issue.
The situation is bleak, but it is not yet beyond hope. Some refugees are returning, and if they receive adequate, targeted assistance immediately, this might be enough of a remnant to keep the Christianity alive in its New Testament birthplace for another generation.
But that may require U.S. politicians taking a page out of the Old Testament. The Book of Esther tells the story of a well-placed favorite in the king of Persia’s court. In those days, local political factions were conspiring to exterminate another religious minority, the Jews, and Queen Esther was challenged by her adopted father to use her political clout to intervene on their behalf. Mordecai’s words ring down through the ages, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
The alternative is a bleak one that should sear the conscience of people of every faith and conviction. Unless we act soon, we may bear witness to the final chapter of a genocide that we could have prevented.
Photo credit: ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.