By Matt Hadro
Christian survivors of the ISIS genocide have serious humanitarian needs, but their faith remains strong, one congressman said after his visit to displaced Christians in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
The faith of Christians, “every one of them,” has grown “stronger” since ISIS militants forced them from their homes in Northern Iraq and in and around Erbil where they have been living for over two years, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told CNA in an interview.
Rep. Smith, chair of the House global human rights subcommittee, recently traveled to Erbil, Iraq to visit with survivors of the ISIS genocide there, most of them Christian. He also met with religious leaders and U.S. and United Nations officials.
The faith of the Christians, he said, “has been tested in fire, and they are not capitulating, just the opposite. They love the Lord, and they love the Blessed Mother.”
Currently around 70,000 displaced Christians are living in and around Erbil in the Kurdistan Region, some of them waiting to return to their homes in Mosul or the Nineveh Plain but others looking to depart the region.
Rep. Smith said the “biggest takeaway” from his trip to Iraq just before Christmas was “the unmet need” for humanitarian aid of the tens of thousands of Christians who are relying largely upon charities like the Knights of Columbus for their needs, which include food, blankets, and medical care.
In March of 2016, the U.S. had declared that ISIS was committing genocide in Iraq and Syria against Yazidis, Christians, and Shi’a Muslims.
Despite Christians being recognized as genocide victims, which should provide them with special humanitarian relief and refugee status, that has not happened, Rep. Smith said.
Displaced Christians in the region had not received any aid from U.S. aid agencies or the United Nations in two years, said Steve Rasche, the legal counsel and director of IDP resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil. Rasche gave a testimony before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe in September of 2016.
“Humanitarian aid has not flowed to these individuals,” Rep. Smith said, and neither do they have “access to an asylum interview, so if they can’t go back, they can come here.”
“It is winter. It is cold,” he warned of the situation the refugees face, in danger of sickness during the wet winter. “Disease has been mitigated to a large extent, but that can change.”
During his visit, Smith said, he saw the camp of about 6,000 displaced persons was “clean” and “run by selfless Christian leaders” including Archbishop Bashar Wada of the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil.
The leaders, who serve displaced persons of all faiths – including Yazidis and Muslims – “want nothing more than to help those who have been hurt by this genocide. It is absolutely Matthew 25.”
“The diocese is doing an unbelievable job with almost nothing,” he added, but the U.S. needs to step up its humanitarian assistance. Poland and Hungary already have, he pointed out, with the Hungarian government opening an office with a budget of over $3 million euros to aid persecuted Christians.
Rep. Smith related how displaced persons and one bishop – the Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf – told him they felt abandoned by the U.S. “No one’s come to any of these places and just asking, ‘How are the Christians doing?’” Smith noted, saying his delegation “did just that.”
Furthermore, he added that the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide is reportedly considering leaving Christians out of their list of recognized victims of genocide by ISIS.
And yet the faith of the Christians and their leaders remains strong.
The bishops in the region are “true leaders of the faith,” Rep. Smith said, with each bishop acting not only as the “spiritual leader” of the people but also obtaining “the material support to help people live.”
Smith related one instance where he met with a group of internally-displaced families and asked the priest present to lead a group prayer. The priest prayed the “Our Father” in Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
“It was moving, and I think all of us were moved by that when he prayed,” he said.
To deal with the pressing humanitarian problem and better ensure that genocide perpetrators are punished, Smith and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) have introduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act in Congress.
Among other things, the bill would ensure that the genocide victims receive what is due them – humanitarian relief, asylum interviews if they wish to leave the country, and punishment for the perpetrators of genocide so that people feel secure enough to return to their homes.
It would provide a “P-2” designation for the victims of ISIS genocide, expediting their refugee resettlement process if they wished to leave the region.
It would also strengthen the “prosecutorial” case against the genocide perpetrators, broadening the ability of the U.S. to prosecute genocide perpetrators living in the country. The bill has been endorsed by all former U.S. Ambassadors-at-Large for War Crimes, Smith said.
He has also sponsored a resolution to set up an ad hoc war crimes tribunal in the region, which he says could be far more effective than the International Criminal Court which has made only two convictions in over a dozen years, both of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
Two Iraqi Christian leaders, Sister Diana Momeka and Fr. Benham Benoka, told CNA previously that some Christian homes in the Nineveh Plain region were liberated from ISIS control, but when Christian residents returned to their homes, they found destruction, vandalism, booby traps, betrayal by their neighbors, and threats telling them they had no place anymore in the region.
Rep. Smith said that in Erbil, the bishops told him many Christians have not yet returned home because they are not convinced that it is secure yet.
“And I think that dashed a ‘maybe we return in a year, in half a year,’” he said of the previous optimism that Christians could return home soon.