Chaldean bishop criticizes Obama administration

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Todd Spangler, Detroit Free Press
Metro Detroit’s Bishop Kalabat says “shame” on Obama administration for not doing more for Christians and other displaced religious minorities in Syria and Iraq
(Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church for Michigan and the eastern half of the U.S. sharply criticized the Obama administration Wednesday, saying it has largely ignored the suffering of Christians displaced by war in Syria and Iraq and should do more to protect and resettle them.

Testifying before a U.S. House subcommittee, Bishop Francis Kalabat of Southfield said while the State Department may soon declare that the Yazidi people, a religious minority in Iraq, face genocide at the hands of the Islamic State or ISIS, it leaves unaddressed problems faced by other religious minorities.

“There are more than 150,000 Iraqi Christians who are now displaced in northern Iraq or are refugees in other countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey,” Kalabat said. “There are countless Christian villages in Syria that have been taken over by ISIS and have encountered genocide, and the Obama administration refuses to recognize their plight. … I say, shame on you.”

Kalabat delivered his impassioned testimony to the subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations as it considered the circumstances of religious minorities displaced by fighting in Syria and Iraq and the actions taken against them by ISIS. According to witnesses, religious minorities have faced sexual violence, forced conversions, killings and other threats.

While the U.S. has accepted tens of thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria since 2011, the large majority have been Muslims, causing some to argue for more to be done specifically for Christians and other religious minorities. That call has become more urgent as ISIS has continued to gain ground and in the face of recent terrorist attacks.

The subcommittee hearing was held against a backdrop of increasing concern over fighting in the Middle East and whether extra precautions should be taken regarding refugees from Syria and Iraq in the wake of last month’s attacks in Paris, for which ISIS took credit. More than 130 people died in the attacks, leading to worries terrorists might try to infiltrate the U.S. via refugee programs.

The U.S. House has passed legislation, which President Barack Obama has vowed to veto, that would effectively halt his plans to resettle some 10,000 Syrians in the U.S. by next October. This week, the House also passed a bill by U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, to tighten the visa waiver program for anyone who has traveled to or is a dual citizen of Syria and Iraq.

Both bills’ restrictions would be nondenominational and include Christians and other religious minorities, which Kalabat denounced, saying, “Christians have not been part of any terrorist activity but instead have been the targets of terrorist activities. And now they are being looked at as possible terrorists. This is simply unfair.”

The White House, meanwhile, has continued to say it will do everything it can to hit its resettlement target, without being drawn into debates over the religious background of those being resettled. The vast majority of the some 4 million displaced by war in Syria and Iraq are Muslims.

At the hearing, subcommittee Chairman Chris Smith, R-N.J., said the administration should declare the persecution faced by Christian religious minorities in Syria and Iraq constitutes genocide. Such a determination could trigger legal obligations to offer aid, asylum and other protections and would likely change American strategy in the region.

“Each day, our newspapers, magazines, radios and television screens are filled with images of people fleeing territory controlled by the Islamic jihadist group known as the Islamic State,” said Smith. “The crisis has become the largest displacement crisis in the world, with 3.8 million people having fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, in addition to those internally displaced.”

Concerns have been raised, however, that the refugee resettlement system in place in the Middle East works against Christian and other religious minorities. According to reports — including one last month in the Washington Post — members of religious minorities can face violence in refugee camps and try to avoid them, but the United Nations draws much of its refugee pool from those camps.

Meanwhile, as religious minorities, their adherents and supporters say, they have far fewer places to move safely to across the region, leading some, including Kalabat, to suggest that the U.S. and other western nations should offer more refuge to Christians displaced by war.

“Here’s my point, where is the best place for a Muslim-Syrian refugee to settle? Kuwait or Germany? Saudi Arabia or Canada? Qatar or America?” he said. “My point (is) it is much easier for an Arab refugee to start over in a country where the language is the same, the culture is similar and the official religion of that country is the same.”

Kalabat, though, pointedly noted the dire threats faced by the Yazidis, who the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said is the target of genocide, as well as other Muslim groups themselves and was quick to say that he did not mean that “no Muslim Syrian or Iraqi refugee should enter a western country,” a distinction important in the wake of Monday’s statement by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that Muslims should not be allowed into the U.S.

Kalabat called for the U.S. to join with nonprofit groups and churches to “ensure the efficient delivery of aid” to refugees as well as recognizing that Christian groups, as well as the Yazidis, face genocide in the region. Doing so, he said, “would send a powerful signal to the United Nations and every member of the international community to act on their plight.”

He also called for creation of an “autonomous region” where Christians and other religious minorities can be settled.