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Congressman Juan Vargas

Representing the 51st District of California

Op-Ed: Here's How We Can Help Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS

Sep 18, 2015
In The News

Last year, for the first time in more than 2,000 years, there was no church service in Mosul after a radical Sunni Islamist terrorist group known as the Islamic State expanded its control into northwest Iraq. Christians living in their historic homeland in the Nineveh Plains were warned to either convert to Islam, pay a cumbersome tax or be executed.

I watched in horror as more than 10,000 Iraqi Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities packed their belongings and fled to neighboring communities. This mass exodus represented the largest forced displacement in the Middle East since the Armenian genocide in Turkey more than 100 years ago. The persecution continued as the Islamic State burned churches and other religious sites, conducted summary executions, abused women and children and looted properties.

The Nineveh Plains, first settled in 6,000 B.C., have been inhabited by Christians for more than two centuries. In the Bible, the Prophet Jonah was ordered by God to "arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee." With the Tigris River to the east, the Nineveh Plains is rich in cultural history and religious diversity.

Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the number of Christians in Iraq had been estimated to be between 800,000 and 1.4 million. This included Armenian Catholics, Chaldean Christians, Assyrian Church of the East members and Protestants. In 2013, the Christian population was estimated at 500,000, around half the size of the pre-2003 level. Today, with ongoing violence and forced displacement, the Christian population continues to decline. Pope Francis recently declared that ''in this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide — and I stress the word genocide — is taking place, and it must end.''

San Diego County is home to the second largest concentration of Chaldeans in the United States. Many were resettled after the recent Iraq war and have been fully integrated and are productive members of our community. I have had the pleasure of working with key Chaldean leaders throughout the years, and when the crisis started, we immediately went into action.

I introduced and passed House Resolution 683, which reaffirmed our nation's longstanding commitment to protecting religious freedom both here and abroad, and outlined concrete steps the administration should take to provide relief to religious minorities facing persecution. Despite American leadership in providing humanitarian assistance as events unraveled, I continue to believe that more needs to be done to protect these vulnerable populations.

Religious minorities in Iraq are in a state of crisis. In total, according to the International Organization for Migration's Iraqi Displacement Tracking Matrix, there are more than 2.25 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) across Iraq, with almost a million based in the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Religious and ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented in these numbers as The Islamic State's continued expansion forces more people to flee.

Once displaced, many lack key assets and legal documents, and have limited services at the IDP camps and informal settlements. As a follow-up to House Resolution 683, I recently introduced the Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act (H.R. 1568), which would provide members of religious and ethnic minority communities and those facing gender-based violence in Islamic State-controlled territories Priority 2 processing to allow them to apply directly to the United States Refugee Admission Program.

The U.S. has a strategic and moral imperative to protect religious freedom around the world, and should be doing more to provide relief to minority groups under siege by the Islamic State. As a country with a proud history of welcoming those seeking to practice their faith without fear or discrimination, the U.S. is well-suited to resettling these refugees into existing faith communities. I look forward to working with my colleagues in a bipartisan fashion as we advocate for those facing mass atrocities and crimes against humanity simply for their religious beliefs.