January 11, 2017
Celebrating Christmas may be a luxury that other Americans take for granted -- but Congressman Chris Smith (R-N.J.) doesn't. And over the December holiday, he flew to the cradle of the Christian faith to offer comfort to the survivors of ISIS's war on the church. It was a sobering visit, as a once-thriving population now lives in fear of the slaughter that's taken so many of their Iraqi brothers and sisters.
In a meeting with the highest-ranking Catholic in Erbil, Archbishop Bashar Warda warned that the situation was dire. Without the help of the United States, he pleaded, Christians are on the verge of extinction. "This Christmas season," Rep. Smith said, "the survival of Christians in Iraq, where they have lived for almost 2,000 years, is at stake." Hunted down, tortured, and driven from villages they've lived in since ancient times, the population is desperate for the world to step in and stop the violence. In winter, when diseases are running rampant, even basic necessities like food, blankets, and medicine are rare.
Like us, Rep. Smith knows who is to blame. "The president has been asleep at the switch in my opinion [and] unwilling to engage on the genocide issue -- until recently." And then, only after significant pressure from his own party -- including extreme liberals like Hillary Clinton. But even after acknowledging the genocide, the administration still has barely lifted a finger to offer real relief. Instead, it's seemed preoccupied with letting other Syrians stream into the country unchecked, slamming the door in the face of the thousands of Christians desperate for a safe place to start over. In fact, Rep. Smith told reporters earlier today, U.S. officials at the consulate in Erbil, Iraq were so disinterested that they hadn't even visited a refugee camp that was only a 10-minute drive from their office.
After nine congressional hearings on the issue, Rep. Smith is hoping the new president will treat the crisis with the seriousness it deserves. To get the ball rolling, the New Jersey conservative mapped out how the United States can get involved in meaningful ways in his Iraq and Syrian Genocide Accountability Act, just introduced in the House this week. Calling the slaughter of Christians one of Obama's biggest "failures," Smith knows the new Congress has a fresh chance to shrug off the indifference of the last eight years. The bill, he explains, "is a blueprint for how to assist Christians and other genocide survivors and hold perpetrators accountable." Among other things, it would jumpstart the asylum process for religious minorities -- but not in a way that would leave the U.S. vulnerable. "Everyone will have to go through a vetting process," the congressman reassured people. But in a big departure from the past, the U.S. would cut through the red tape of the U.N. and actually conduct the first interview for refugees overseas. Not only would H.R. 390 speed up the application process, but it would also prosecute those committing war crimes against Christians and fund relief efforts for survivors of Middle East genocide.
Of which there are plenty. Open Doors USA made that painfully clear today in the release of its annual World Watch List. For the last several years, Dr. David Curry's group has highlighted the most dangerous places to be a Christian on earth. As usual, the most brutal regions are no surprise. North Korea has topped the list for 14 years (followed this year by Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Eritrea), but the blood spilled in the Middle East, where Christians are routinely tortured, kidnapped, and executed, is raising the alarm. The march of ISIS through Africa and Arab countries is spreading terror at a horrifying rate, especially in places like Nigeria, where the killings of Christians climbed by a stunning 62 percent in the last 12 months alone.
According to Curry, 2016 was the "worst year yet" in terms of global religious persecution. Saying the situation has become frighteningly volatile, Open Doors points out that South and Southeast Asia, where this kind of faith-based oppression was never as widespread, is rapidly ranking as violent as Sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, as many as 215 million Christians experience "high, very high, or extreme" persecution, the group found.
FRC's Travis Weber, director of our center for religious liberty, said the most powerful part of the Open Doors press conference may have been Pastor Edward from Syria, who stayed in the country to pastor his church despite the threat level. "It seems like the age of martyrdom is back," he said. Yet his joy and peace wasn't suppressed. He told the story of a convert to Christianity who posted his decision to get baptized on Facebook, declaring openly that it was important news that he wanted everyone to know. The convert recognized the potential danger but believed his witness was more important. As Christians in America we are obligated to him -- and the millions of our brave brothers and sisters in Christ around the world -- not only to speak, but act. And one of the loudest messages we can send is our choice for Secretary of State. Will America continue leading from behind or pick up the torch of religious liberty? The person who occupies that desk will help decide -- and I remain uncertain about whether or not President-elect Trump's nominee is up to the task.
For more on what you can do to help the persecuted church, check out Travis's column here.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.