Bipartisan legislation that would authorize U.S. government funds to be given to relief groups directly providing assistance to displaced Iraqi and Syrian Christians unanimously passed through the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening.
The Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., in January, would authorize the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide support to organizations, groups and entities, including faith-based ones, that are assisting religious minority groups who were forced to flee from their homes because of the rise of the Islamic State three years ago.
It would also authorize federal support for entities that are conducting criminal investigations on militants who have engaged in genocidal efforts, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Iraq and Syria. The bill seeks to order the State Department to encourage foreign governments to identify and prosecute perpetrators of such crimes.
Additionally, the bill would order the attorney general and secretary of state to review U.S. criminal statutes on genocide to determine the extent U.S. courts are currently authorized to exercise jurisdiction over crimes where the direct perpetrators, accomplices, or victims are United States nationals and whether additional statutory authorities are needed to be able to prosecute a U.S. person or a foreign person within the U.S. for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The bill comes after former Sec. of State John Kerry declared last year that the Islamic State was committing genocide against Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled from their homes in northern Iraq and are now displaced in the Kurdistan region of Iraq or in neighboring countries.
According to the advocacy group In Defense of Christians, many of the thousands of Christians displaced in northern Iraq have received no assistance from the U.S. government even though the U.S. has given the Iraqi government millions of dollars for relief efforts. Archbishop of Erbil Bashar Warda told The Christian Post last year that his archdiocese, which is providing humanitarian assistance to many displaced Christians, had received no funds from the Iraqi government.
"Unless Christians begin receiving assistance from the international community, including from the U.S. government, they are going to continue leaving Iraq, which is not in the interests of the United States," IDC Executive Director Philippe Nassif said in a statement. "This legislation will ensure that the U.S. government is assisting the organizations that are effectively serving these communities."
Smith, who is the chairman of the House panel on global human rights, saw for himself the situation facing displaced Iraqi Christians in Erbil when he visited there last winter.
"Some of the fortunate ones have made it to relative safety in Erbil. While there, I saw much joy, love and courage, despite the loss of family and friends to ISIS. They had hope. The children sang Christmas carols with smiles and reverence. But astonishingly, last year — or any year — they have not gotten any assistance from the United States," Smith said in a statement. "President [Donald] Trump and Vice President [Mike] Pence have strongly, publicly committed the administration to providing relief to Christians, Yazidis and other genocide survivors, and ensuring perpetrators are brought to justice. H.R. 390 will help ensure that officials implement these commitments and is a blueprint for implementation."
Following the passage of the legislation, Eshoo stated that the legislation will not only provide much needed relief to the victims of what the U.S. government and Congress have labeled as "genocide" but will also help ensure those who cause the suffering are held responsible.
The bill still needs to pass through the Senate before it can be sent to the president's desk.
"The Christian and Yazidi survivors of the ongoing genocide in Iraq and Syria have been crying out for help since the Islamic State's barbarity was unleashed upon them, yet none of the U.S. humanitarian aid has reached them," Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser with The Catholic Association, said in a statement. "This crucial bill would hold perpetrators of violence accountable and partner U.S. aid with organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need, who have been on the ground providing basic sustenance for Christian, Yazidi, and Muslim refugees."
Nate Lance, advocacy manager for International Christian Concern, said in a statement that the Senate and President Trump need to advance this legislation into law as quickly as possible so that the victims of the Islamic State's crimes against humanity can begin to receive the much-needed aid.
Carl Anderson, CEO of the Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, said Tuesday's vote in the House proved that providing relief for genocide victims is not a "partisan issue."
"The action of the House last night demonstrates that America stands united in the face of evil and terror," Anderson said. "Last night's action demonstrates that America stands united to ensure that the goals of terrorism will never be achieved."