Hearing focuses on need to protect religious minorities in Iraq, Syria

by Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — A Capitol Hill hearing May 26 focused on protecting religious minorities, including Christians, from ongoing Islamic State persecution in Iraq and Syria.

Convened by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, the hearing aimed to find a path forward following the Obama administration’s March 17 recognition of Islamic State militants’ slaughter of Christians as genocide.

Smith credited a 280-page report commissioned by the Knights of Columbus titled “In Defense of Christians” as “perhaps the most important push outside the government” toward gaining official recognition of the genocide.

Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, presented his responses to the question posed by the hearing’s title, “The ISIS Genocide Declaration: What’s Next?”

Anderson argued that the United States should focus on protecting indigenous religious and ethnic groups, punishing Islamic State, assisting genocide victims in gaining refugee status and developing effective measures to address future religiously-motivated human rights abuses.

“Repeatedly, we hear from church leaders in the region that Christians — and other genocide survivors — are last in line for assistance from governments,” Anderson said, citing the Iraqi Archdiocese of Erbil as an example.

That archdiocese, he said, is now home to most of the remaining Iraqi Christians and receives no money from any government, instead relying on nongovernmental organizations including the Knights.

“As survivors of an ongoing genocide, they (Iraqi and Syrian Christians) deserve to be prioritized, not left behind by American policy decisions,” Anderson said.

Anderson pointed out that of the 499 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. as of mid-May, none were Christian.

“The U.S. should appropriate funding and work with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to make provisions for locating and providing status to individuals — such as Yezidis and Christians — that have been targeted for genocide. Many of these genocide survivors fear going into official U.N. refugee camps, where they are targeted. Thus they are overlooked, and find it nearly impossible to acquire official refugee status or immigrate,” Anderson said.

Both Anderson and Naomi Kikoler, deputy director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, stressed the need to prevent future atrocities in the region.

“For over 10 years religious minorities were targeted, on the basis of their identity, by extremists groups and were politically marginalized. Little was done to protect them physically or legally, and many saw their only protection option being to flee Iraq,” Kikoler said. “Today, minorities often express concern that IS is only the latest iteration of that phenomenon and that in its wake a new extremist group will emerge and target them again.”

Kikoler said that to prevent continued marginalization and conflict, the U.S. needs to invest in peacemaking efforts and address the issues that caused Islamic State to gain power, even at the local level.

“The commitment to prevent and protect minorities must extend beyond the current threat posed by IS. We must endeavor to ensure that in 10 years we are not yet again meeting in the wake of another failure to protect vulnerable minorities in Iraq and Syria,” Kikoler said.

David Crane, former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone who indicted warlord president Charles Taylor of Libya, also spoke at the hearing. He said more investigation was needed to determine whether Islamic State had committed genocide, but that the U.S. should focus on curbing Islamic State’s power and implementing “a Marshall Plan for the Middle East.”

“We must contain the ISIS threat regionally, stamp out ISIS attempts to further their cause elsewhere, and focus on achievable programs in the region, locally, and domestically. A young man or woman who has a job and some hope for a better future is less likely to turn to terror and to ISIS,” Crane said.

Sarhang Hamasaeed, senior program officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, echoed the other hearing speakers and suggested that, given the Iraqi government’s failure to serve its minorities, the U.S. might continue working with the Alliance of Iraqi Minorities, an advocacy group formed under the Washington-based Institute for Peace that influences Iraqi policy and communicates with international supporters to protect minorities in Iraq.

Johnny Oram, executive director of the Chaldean Assyrian Business Alliance of Detroit, spoke at the hearing in favor of assimilation programs for Iraqi refugees in the U.S. and protection programs for Christians wishing to remain in Iraq and Syria.

“We have a moral obligation here to step up as the leader of the free world and help the thousands of Christians and other religious minorities escape displacement and death, give them hope when they have lost it, and to reassure them that they have a place that they can come to if they so choose,” Oram said.

Copyright ©2016 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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