When I visited Erbil, Iraq, in December with a congressional delegation determined to find out why Christians had often been excluded from U.S. aid programs, Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud of Mosul told us that Americans generally care more about endangered frogs than about endangered Christian communities.
He has a point.
Christians have lived in the region for almost 2,000 years. Many still speak the language of Jesus. But although they, and other minority communities, are now seriously endangered, some Americans seem more worried that they might get priority than that they might disappear completely.
The Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh – and its antecedents – imposed a strict religious test and then targeted minority religious communities for elimination. At best, these communities fled, but lost everything in the process.
Those who are outraged that we might now prioritize them are forgetting America’s proud tradition of prioritizing genocide survivors, and the dark moments when we ignored them.
After horrifically refusing admission to Jewish refugees on the S.S. St. Louis in 1939, the United States later changed course and numerically prioritized displaced European Jews. They had suffered a uniquely horrible targeting – even if there were more German, French and Italian refugees, who were also displaced and suffering.
During and after World War I as well, the U.S. government worked with Near Eastern Relief to aid Armenian and other Christian communities targeted for genocide by the Ottoman Empire. The American people solidly supported the effort.
It is not un-American to prioritize those who have been targeted for genocide because of their faith. It has been seen as quintessentially American for a century.
And religious persecution has long been a key qualifier for refugee status under our immigration laws.
When the Lautenberg amendment was renewed with bipartisan support in 2015, no one was outraged. It prioritizes for asylum those who are Christian, Jewish and Baha’i, as well as other religious minorities from Iran.
Notably, the Obama administration’s official policy was also to prioritize Christian and other religious minority refugees from Syria. Knox Thames, the Obama administration’s State Department special advisor for religious minorities, wrote in October 2015:
“Due to the unique needs of vulnerable religious minority communities, the State Department has prioritized the resettlement of Syrian Christian refugees and other religious minorities fleeing the conflict.”
The policy failed to deliver. Only about half of one percent of Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. in fiscal year 2016 were Christian – though they make up 10 percent of the Syrian population. Yazidis and Shia Muslims were also profoundly underrepresented. Again, there was no uproar over the stated policy, and little coverage of its failure.
So the outrage is new, but policies claiming to prioritize Christians – and other minorities – are not.
What is deeply troubling is how often U.S. government aid overlooked the needs of these minority groups since 2014.
Last year, our government – for only the second time in history – formally declared an ongoing situation was a genocide. Secretary of State John Kerry explained that this genocide was one of religious persecution, saying: “The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia.” Those words should have triggered America’s duty to help these targeted groups.
Instead, Christians – and other small communities targeted by ISIS’ genocidal campaign – have often been last in line, not first, to get U.S. government assistance.
While the U.S. government and the United Nations have spent heavily on humanitarian relief in the wake of ISIS, the largest community of displaced Christians – in Erbil – has received no money from our government or from the UN, according to Archbishop Bashar Warda, who is caring for tens of thousands of those displaced there.
It is the same story for many Yazidis.
In Iraq last spring, I met Yazidi families living next to an open sewer in Ozal City. Except for “two kilograms of lamb” in 2014, they had received nothing from the U.S. government, and nothing from the UN. Only Iraqi Christians – themselves overlooked by these entities – had helped them.
Far from receiving priority, communities most at risk of disappearing have received nothing at all from our government.
The reason U.S. and UN officials gave in Iraq this past May for overlooking these groups was that their aid prioritized only individual needs. If someone was hungry, they got aid, but the fact that a group could disappear entirely was never even considered.
“Helping everyone” typically means aid is sent to major refugee camps, resulting in the de facto exclusion of minority communities, since they have been targeted by extremists within these camps, and thus avoid them. It effectively means many religious minorities receive no help.
That American government aid to these groups is long overdue has – until now – been a subject of bipartisan agreement, not controversy.
The fact is that America’s lack of response to religious minorities has allowed ISIS’ program of eliminating these people from the region to continue.
While ISIS may applaud American inaction toward these communities over the past two years, neither the religious minorities in the Middle East, nor the judgment of history will do the same.
Giving preference does not mean helping only genocide survivors. But not giving them preference likely means they will soon be beyond help.
They could soon be completely eradicated.
Will anyone be outraged then?
Andrew Walther is the vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus and has been involved in humanitarian aid, public awareness and public policy initiatives for those persecuted by ISIS since 2014.
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