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Where gridlock kills

Victims of ISIS face a fast-closing window of opportunity in Iraq, their prospects dimmed by politicking and paralysis gripping Republican leaders in Washington

Where gridlock kills

Displaced Iraqi civilians walk through the Old City of west Mosul.(Martyn Aim/Corbis via Getty Images)

Faris, an Iraqi father, faces tough decisions about his family’s future. Forced from their home by ISIS in 2014, he, his wife, and their three sons in September entered a fourth year of temporary housing, temporary schooling, and temporary income—financial resources that each month threaten to run out. Already many families like his have had to vacate apartments after rental support from church groups ended, venturing abroad or returning again to two-room portacabins—trailers that lack heat and kitchens.

With Mosul liberated in July and ISIS on the run, Iraqis like Faris expected to be able to return to their communities by now. Many hoped to clear the destruction and begin to rebuild before October, when another school year begins.

But government resources for the enormous task of reconstructing cities and towns has been slow to materialize. In Congress, a bill to direct already-appropriated funds to victims of ISIS genocide failed to pass the Senate before its August adjournment, even though it passed by unanimous consent in the House in June.

Given its urgency, an array of human rights advocates, NGOs, churches, and church-affiliated groups have lobbied for the measure, H.R. 390. Once it reached the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., they along with lawmakers and security experts believed it would be “hotlined” for swift passage due to the urgent situation Iraqis like Faris face. Yet through the final weeks of the congressional session, Corker and ranking minority member Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., refused to schedule the bill for committee consideration.

Ron Sachs/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

Sen. Corker (Ron Sachs/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

The strange gridlock gripping the nation’s capital—with the White House and both houses of Congress under Republican control—in this case may have dire consequences for Faris and tens of thousands of ISIS victims the United States has pledged to assist.

Last month Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated last year’s genocide declaration from Secretary of State John Kerry, highlighting “the systematic effort” ISIS made to “destroy the cultural heritage of ancient communities.” With that in mind, H.R. 390 would preserve and restore those communities, while at the same time accounting for ISIS war crimes. But evidence of war crimes won’t hang around forever, and Iraqis may have only weeks, or at most a few more months, to reclaim their property. Corker and Cardin, from multiple accounts of those who worked to push the measure forward, appeared unmoved by the urgency, while disarray at the State Department also has hurt critical aid efforts in Iraq.

Faris and his family lived in Baghdad until 2006, where he ran a catering business. Death threats forced them and other Christians to flee north to Qaraqosh, a majority Christian city of 50,000 in Nineveh Plains. Faris worked and saved his money, bought property in Qaraqosh, and in 2010 built a home.

When ISIS invaded in August 2014, Faris again managed to evacuate his family to safety—this time to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. There they found shelter—along with tens of thousands of others, many sleeping for a time on church lawns or in church pews, before being relocated to overcrowded apartments or the rugged camps set up outside Erbil.

The Iraqi army’s military offensive liberated Qaraqosh and many of Iraq’s historic Christian towns last November, but the towns remain war ruins. Stray ISIS suicide bombers, months of fighting in nearby Mosul, and myriad checkpoints run by competing militias made travel to the freed-up areas dangerous. After Mosul’s full liberation in July, Faris took a day trip back to his home to survey the damage. He passed bombed-out storefronts and overturned cars to reach his street. There his home sat in a black heap. ISIS occupiers had soaked interior walls in oil and set them on fire. They gouged plaster from windows, shattered glass panes, and destroyed overhead lights and fans. Gone are most of the family’s furniture and all their valuables.

Nearby, ISIS dumped a tanker’s worth of oil into the basement of another Christian family’s home, then set the oil on fire. The blaze burned so hot it blew a crater in the concrete floor of the front room and melted glass from the windows.

Samaritan’s Purse

Faris’ destroyed home (Samaritan’s Purse)

Faris and his neighbors are like thousands of other ISIS victims whose homes are damaged seemingly beyond repair and in ways unimaginable. Their cities remain cut from electricity and water supply, and the level of local protection post-ISIS is unpredictable. The Iraqi government permits Iranian-backed militias—known locally as the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilization Forces—to patrol the recaptured territory in Nineveh. Christians and other locals fear the militias will impose Iranian-style Islamic rule in the once diverse region, giving Tehran a corridor to the Syrian border while driving out Christians and non-Shia Muslims. For all these reasons, Faris and other Christians are cautious not to have their full names used in print or to publish exact locations of their homes.

Yet for all their fears and uncertainties, the black heap that was his home is all Faris and his family have. They face the daunting task of rebuilding or the also-daunting task of giving up and finally leaving Iraq altogether. Applying to the United Nations to resettle in another country is a multiyear process made more difficult by growing restrictions on refugee entries to the United States and parts of Europe. Their departures, too, could signal the end of a Christian presence in a country where it dates back nearly to the time of Christ Himself.

Such plights form the backdrop to H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act of 2017. Introduced in the House in January by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., its 47 co-sponsors included seven Democrats. Scrutinized by the Judiciary and the Foreign Affairs committees, it passed the House on a voice vote on June 6. Using the already-appropriated funds for Iraq stabilization, the bill would cost an additional $8 million over five years, according to a Congressional Budget Office estimate.

Smith told me earlier this year the genesis for H.R. 390 grew out of fact-finding trips to Iraq, where it became clear no U.S. aid was getting through to groups most especially targeted by ISIS, chiefly non-Muslims. That crystallized for the 62-year-old New Jersey lawmaker, who is Catholic, last December when U.S. officials refused to grant him security clearance to visit Christian camps in Iraq. Their reason? They’d never visited any of those camps themselves. They didn’t know how to get to them, or their security protocol.

Smith went anyway, hiring his own transportation. He met with church leaders and displaced Christians in Ashti-2, at 6,000 residents the largest Christian camp at that time, on Dec. 23. He said he sat with Christians and heard stories “of ISIS atrocities, the desecration of churches, the crucifixions of young men who refused to join ISIS, and the sexual slavery forced on some young Christian girls.”

Courtesy of U.S. Congressman Chris Smith

Rep. Smith and Erbil Archbishop Bashar Warda visit a refugee camp in Erbil (Courtesy of U.S. Congressman Chris Smith)

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.

Jan Kuhlmann/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

An Iraqi passes by destroyed buildings in the Christian town of Qaraqosh. (Jan Kuhlmann/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP)

FROM MOSUL OUT into the plains of Nineveh, Iraqis are beating their swords into plowshares now that ISIS is on the run. Nearly 1,000 Christian families have returned to Qaraqosh, a small fraction of the 50,000 people who lived there in 2014.

On Sundays, mostly men pack themselves into one of many burned-out church buildings for worship services, held intermittently since spring. Each time, they stand throughout the service because ISIS destroyed all the pews. The churches have organized teenagers into work crews, sending them out with shovels and industrial brooms to sweep the streets and clear sidewalks littered with debris.

About 3,000 families may return in coming weeks, if school buildings are available, according to Andrzej Halemba of Aid to the Church in Need. The Baghdad government is offering limited support to returnees, and Halemba said thousands want to return, undeterred by temperatures reaching 122 degrees Fahrenheit in Nineveh this time of year: “Many internally displaced people have married, and many young people want to move to their villages for stability.”

Halemba’s group has completed 986 homes to a habitable standard, but hasn’t begun to work on those most devastated. With at least 12,000 homes in Qaraqosh needing to be repaired, the church-based groups face a nearly impossible challenge: how to fund and staff a rebuilding effort while they also fund and support Iraqis living in displaced camps.

“We are moving forward without U.S. assistance, but our efforts are not as effective as they would be with U.S. assistance,” said Stephen Rasche, an American who serves as legal counsel and head of resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic archdiocese in northern Iraq. “It’s very frustrating to us that H.R. 390 has received such strong support in Congress, and yet leadership in the Senate seems not to have understood its importance and immediacy. The whole thing seems lost.”

Part of “moving forward” was the Chaldean Church, Aid to the Church in Need, and others this year launching the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee to supervise rebuilding efforts for Iraqis who want to return. They have divided up Qaraqosh into six sections and assigned a section to NGOs willing to support returning families. Besides Catholic organizations, North Carolina–based Samaritan’s Purse has agreed to work in one section where approximately 600 homes need rebuilding. The group has long worked in Iraq and opened this year a trauma hospital just outside Mosul, but this will be the first time a project is aimed mostly at Christian Iraqis.

It’s “a big, big project” for Samaritan’s Purse, said vice president for public policy Todd Chasteen, but the relief organization had watched the church aid groups “making dents in what’s needed, while it’s unclear whether there will be enough private donors to make the major difference and create momentum. We believe we must see momentum in the next three to six months.”

Chasteen said he had not discussed H.R. 390 with members of Congress, but the bill did come up in a meeting held in Vice President Mike Pence’s office. “What I have to ask is what happens if nobody does anything? What happens if there is no post-ISIS strategy?” he said. “It would be nice to have protection and security in this area, and to have U.S. funding so that it could be used effectively.”

In Qaraqosh, Faris learned his blackened house sits within the Samaritan’s Purse section of the city. In August he met with the aid group, eager to begin work on his home with its help. He told them he would buy the paint with his own money.

—with reporting by Evan Wilt, in Washington, D.C.

This story has been edited to clarify that Rep. Smith spoke to WORLD previously. He was unavailable at press time due to travel.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.