US boosts help to victims of ‘ISIS genocide’ in Syria, Iraq

Although the legislation pledges increased assistance to all religious minorities, it drew wide support in Congress because it would help Christians in Iraq and Syria.
Tuesday 23/10/2018
A Christian Iraqi man inspects his neighbours' home, destroyed by Islamic State militants in the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, in September 12. (Reuters)
A Christian Iraqi man inspects his neighbours' home, destroyed by Islamic State militants in the Iraqi city of Qaraqosh, in September 12. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON - The United States would increase aid to Iraqi and Syrian religious and ethnic minorities that had been targeted for removal and slaughter by the Islamic State (ISIS) under a measure approved by the US Congress.

The bill, which US President Donald Trump is expected to sign, would provide increased emergency and humanitarian relief to Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims whom ISIS ousted from large sections of Iraq and Syria in a deadly campaign that began in 2014. ISIS conducted mass executions of religious minorities in the two countries and has called for attacks against any religious group that does not follow its extremist interpretation of Islam.

“For too long, Christians and other victims of ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria have been subsisting without vital US aid,” said US Representative Chris Smith, the New Jersey Republican who sponsored the measure.

The United States has given extensive aid and relief to displaced people in Iraq and Syria. The legislation does not allocate additional aid but redirects funds to serve victims of ISIS first. Smith said when he visited ISIS-displaced Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2016, “these genocide survivors told me the United States and global community had abandoned them.”

The bill requires the US State Department to gather evidence of genocide by ISIS and to encourage other countries to prosecute people involved in mass killings, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

In addition, the measure would make it easier for religious minorities persecuted by ISIS to enter the United States as refugees by declaring the minority communities of “special humanitarian concern to the United States.” That prioritisation is a change from the policy under former US President Barack Obama, who gave preferred refugee status to Sunni Muslims from Syria.

If enacted, the bill “will help the international community document the crimes against humanity that have been committed by ISIS, hold the perpetrators accountable and ensure we learn from the horrors we have witnessed over the last six years so that we can one day prevent another genocide from occurring,” said Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat who co-sponsored the measure.

ISIS has been particularly brutal towards the Yazidis in northern Iraq, killing, capturing or displacing more than 400,000 from 2014-16, a UN report in 2016 stated. “No other religious group has been subjected to the destruction that Yazidis have suffered,” the report said, referring to ISIS’s campaign.

One of the recipients of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize is Nadia Murad, a 25-year-old Yazidi whom ISIS captured and enslaved. She was honoured for her work to “end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.”

Although the legislation pledges increased assistance to all religious minorities, it drew wide support in Congress because it would help Christians in Iraq and Syria. The number of Christians in Iraq has fallen from an estimated 800,000-1.4 million in 2002 to fewer than 250,000 in 2017, Congress said. The Syrian Christian community, which once accounted for 8-10% of Syria’s population, is “considerably” smaller because of the country’s civil war, Congress said.

A human rights group, In Defence of Christians, which advocates for Christians in the Middle East, said in a statement that the measure would help “these communities from going extinct.”

The bill passed the House of Representatives on a unanimous voice vote in June 2017 but stalled for more than a year in the US Senate, where Senator Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, sought to rewrite the measure to create a Syria Study Group that would review US diplomatic and military strategy in Syria.

Corker recently came under pressure from groups that advocate for religious freedom and human rights. The Religious Freedom Coalition, an influential Washington organisation that advocates for persecuted Christians in the Middle East and Africa, criticised Corker for trying “to establish a worthless commission.”

Corker dropped his efforts to revise the bill and the bill was approved by the Senate on October 11 in a unanimous vote.