By Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, opinion contributor
President Trump will soon have a chance to make up for some lost time in supporting Iraqi religious minorities that ISIS threatened with extinction. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) and his colleagues in Congress want to make sure our concern for the victims of genocide has the force of law. On Tuesday they unanimously passed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, which would ensure humanitarian and recovery assistance for nationals of Iraq and Syria, including those communities that are at risk of persecution or war crimes.
Trump’s prompt signature of this important legislation would guarantee that we never forget our promise to the persecuted.
A little more than a year ago, Vice President Mike Pence pledged direct support to Christians, Yazidis and other minorities forced out of their Iraq homelands by ISIS. One of Iraq’s leading Christian prelates, Chaldean Cardinal Louis Sako, publicly criticized the United States in October for failing to meet its promise to aid persecuted religious minorities in Iraq. This prompted Mark Green, administrator of USAID, the federal agency tasked with our relief effort there, to defend the work done to date.
While most everyone agrees that the money did not come fast enough, things seem to be changing.
In July, the Trump administration established a special office within USAID — the Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Group — to direct money to individuals and households re-establishing themselves. The group’s initial focus is Iraq. The agency also deployed a special representative for minority assistance, Max Primorac, to Erbil. His job: administer programs on the ground and fix the problems that delayed the funding earlier this year. These officials are committed to using their authority and know-how to advance America’s promise to the persecuted.
USAID and the Knights of Columbus recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding to better coordinate their recovery efforts. Partnering with the Knights — a group that has established connections and the trust of effective on-the-ground relief agencies and community groups — guarantees U.S. aid reaches victims instead of benefiting a growing “relief industry” headquartered in Washington.
And USAID’s inspector general has recently identified serious wrongdoing in prior grants intended for Syria’s needy. USAID follow-through in addressing its IG’s findings, coupled with the oversight that the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act mandates, is exactly the kind of accountability that American taxpayers expect and that victims of genocide need.
Again, the U.S. response to the plight of Iraq’s persecuted religious minorities has been genuine, and the aid now appears to be moving more quickly. But it cannot come soon enough for Yohanna Towaya.
Yohanna Towaya has returned to his Christian town of Qaraqosh on Iraqu’s Ninevah Plains. Gone are the ISIS forces that terrorized religious minorities there in 2014 in their larger campaign of genocide. The Iraqi Army drove out ISIS in October 2016 as part of the Battle of Mosul. So Yohanna Towaya is back home, home to memories, good and ghastly, home to the challenge of rebuilding.
Yohanna, his wife and his sons are among the Christian Iraqi who have returned to Qaraqosh. Despite the challenges they face — Yohanna’s parents’ home was significantly damaged; ISIS left behind an undetonated bomb as a parting gift — they are committed to rebuilding. And they haven’t lost hope that they will receive support from the United States.
At least, not yet.
Are they deserving of our help? Well, here’s an anecdote from a friend — Father Benedict Kiely, founder of Nasarean, who knows Yohanna Towaya. Shortly before the liberation of Mosul, while the fighting was still going on, Yohanna helped organize food deliveries to the suffering population. A Muslim resident approached him and asked, “Why are you helping us — we persecuted you and stole your homes?” Yohanna’s response: “We are Christians, and we forgive.”
Yes, those Iraqi refugees returning to rebuild their homes — Iraqi refugees like Yohanna Towaya and his family — deserve our unwavering and swift support so they can once again be safe, secure and prosperous in their own homeland.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the legal adviser for The Catholic Association Foundation.