For years the Christians living primarily in camps outside Erbil have received support from Iraq’s Chaldean Church archdiocese, from the U.S.-based Knights of Columbus, and from the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, a group founded by a Dutch priest in World War II’s aftermath. The State Department under Secretary Kerry called on those groups to document ISIS atrocities against Christians, and Kerry used the findings, compiled by the Knights of Columbus, in preparing his genocide declaration.
But despite those findings, American dollars already designated for Iraq weren’t reaching the Christian enclaves. And nearly every dollar of U.S. aid for stabilizing the region through reconstruction was being funneled through the UN Development Program. UNDP distributes nearly all its aid to the larger population of Muslim communities displaced by ISIS, something that hasn’t changed under the Trump administration.
Aid from churches and Christian organizations to support displaced Christians is one thing. Few NGOs have the capacity to rebuild whole cities, and three years on, church leaders say funds are drying up.
Beyond a humanitarian crisis, restoring the pre-2014 ethnic and religious diversity of Nineveh province is a strategic way to stabilize Iraq, say experts.
Without its non-Muslim minorities, Iraq “will almost certainly revert to a majoritarian tyranny where two forms of Islam compete for dominance,” says Tom Farr, associate professor at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and director of its Berkley Center Religious Freedom Research Project. The result, he said, would be “a permanent, fertile field” for radical Islam.
H.R. 390, Farr says, “is the first, necessary step in returning Christians to their homes in Nineveh Plain.” Like many experts I spoke to, on and off Capitol Hill and in Iraq, Farr—who has served in the U.S. Army and the Foreign Service, working at the State Department during the Clinton and Bush administrations—described the Senate’s inaction in crucial summer months as a failure with enormous consequences: “Not only will it harm the Christians who will not return. It will harm American national security.”
IN A SUMMER OF DISCONTENT, highlighted by the debacle over repealing Obamacare, congressional passage of H.R. 390 might have stood as one small but important stab at unanimity and bipartisanship. What happened instead left advocates baffled about Republican leadership and unsure about the course of GOP-led foreign policy.
With 37 legislative days to act on the measure, progress in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stalled. The panel promised to schedule H.R. 390 for markup, the first step for committees to debate, amend, or rewrite legislation. But it never happened, and there seemed to be unidentified roadblocks. Sen. Cardin, the ranking member, wanted to advance his own bill, S. 905, a measure calling on the U.S. government to assist in collecting data and reporting on genocide and war crimes in Syria. Introduced in April, it passed out of the committee on June 12—five days after the Senate received H.R. 390.
The House bill contained a provision similar to the substance of S. 905. Could the two bills be merged and passed for the president’s signature? supporters asked. Could both bills be passed?
The bills were complementary, several people familiar with the wrangling told me, and suddenly they were being made to compete with one another, for committee scheduling and for valuable floor time in the full Senate.
To speed Senate action on H.R. 390, House members considered whether they might get S. 905 through the House, but they discovered opposition in their own chamber. Some lawmakers wanted to add additional sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime, wanting not only to account for ISIS terror atrocities but to punish the Syrian government as well.
At one point House staff members sat down with their Senate counterparts to draft a bill combining H.R. 390 and S. 905, only to discover some senators on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had proposed attaching the text of S. 905 as an amendment to a defense bill that is still pending in the Senate.
At a final Aug. 3 business meeting before Congress adjourned for the month, tempers rose as it became clear the Senate Foreign Relations Committee wouldn’t budge on either bill. The Republican leadership blamed Democrats for delays, while Democrats blamed the Republican majority. While staff members constructed amended text, still hoping for quick passage, Republicans and Democrats blamed outside groups for pressuring the process. The business meeting adjourned with no action on S. 905 or H.R. 390.
A person close to the negotiations told me, “In the end you had a bill no one had significant objections to that just died.”
Off Capitol Hill, frustration boiled over. William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition and a long-standing advocate for persecuted groups, blamed the stall on “a grudge” held by Sen. Corker toward Rep. Smith. “A Christian conservative who is pro-life and pro-family willing to allow genocide to win a grudge match has me surprised, even as jaded as I am from being on Capitol Hill for 30 years.”
‘A Christian conservative who is pro-life and pro-family willing to allow genocide to win a grudge match has me surprised, even as jaded as I am from being on Capitol Hill for 30 years.’ —William Murray
Murray, whose group supports Iraqi refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and northern Iraq, sent a mass mailing to his base urging support for H.R. 390. He said he’d shown ISIS recruitment videos of beheadings of Christians in Iraq and Syria to numerous lawmakers and staff.
David Trimble, a lobbyist who has represented Baylor University on this and related issues, met with members or staff on the House and Senate committees. “Our leaders appear willing not to act on something that will be for the good of people who stand against terrorism and will be in the interest of our own national security,” he said. “They seem to have turned a deaf ear to that concern.”
The frustration also extends to Corker’s home state, Tennessee. Christian radio show host Carmen LaBerge, whose weekday broadcast airs in Washington and other cities from Franklin, Tenn., phoned me after learning I was looking into H.R. 390.
“Yes, absolutely,” she said when I asked about local interest in the bill, “because we are particularly hospitable to refugees. This is about a ‘both/and’ approach in welcoming Christian brothers and sisters and in preserving opportunities for them to stay right where they are.”
The Trump administration and many Americans support “sheltering in place,” providing permanent communities for millions of the Middle East’s terror victims in or near their homeland, people who might otherwise become refugees or migrants making dangerous—and often illegal—sea crossings to the West.
LaBerge said, “Bob Corker has not heard from me on any issue other than this in terms of my asking him to do something. I recognize his plate is full, and national security is complex, but we are talking about the cradle of Christianity.”
Of 350 refugees resettled in Tennessee last year, the State Department resettled 117 in Chattanooga, Corker’s hometown, where the two-term senator served as mayor from 2001-2005. One-third of those refugees are Iraqis. Micah Fries, senior pastor of Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, estimated 20 families in his 2,000-member church host refugee families in their homes on a regular basis.
Fries said the subject of Middle East Christians losing their ancient homeland is important to his church’s members: The church hosts English as a Second Language classes and works regularly with newly resettled refugees. Most are from the Middle East, he said, and many are from Iraq, including Muslims and Christians. Their children attend youth programs at Brainerd, and many went to summer camps with church kids.
Fries, too, has been active advocating for Iraq’s Christians. He has contacted Sen. Corker’s office twice “as a constituent.” He phoned Corker’s Washington office, he recalled, and spoke with a staff member specifically about H.R. 390. He also visited Corker’s Washington office for World Refugee Day on June 20, aware the House had passed H.R. 390 and Corker’s committee now had jurisdiction.
Fries said he understands the topic of the Middle East isn’t popular with many Americans, but he said Corker has earned a reputation for speaking up, including when he disagrees with the White House and others in Congress. He added, “Part of advocating for refugees is advocating for them to return home.”
Sen. Corker declined a request for an interview. The press spokesman for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chuck Harper, also declined to respond on the record to questions. I contacted Sen. Cardin’s office, but did not receive a response by press time. Trimble and others said finger-pointing and lack of resolution have been familiar on the committee with regard to H.R. 390.