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Explainer: Congress passes bill to help Christians and other genocide victims in Iraq and Syria

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What just happened?

Earlier this week the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to support HR 309, the “Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018.” The purpose of the bill is to provide relief for victims of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes who are members of religious and ethnic minority groups in Iraq and Syria, for accountability for perpetrators of these crimes, and for other purposes.

The bipartisan bill, first introduced in 2017 by Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), now heads to President Donald Trump’s desk, where he’s expected to sign it into law.

What does the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act do?

This bill states that it is U.S. policy to ensure that humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery assistance for nationals and residents of Iraq or Syria, and of communities from those countries, is directed toward ethnic and minority individuals and communities with the greatest need, including those individuals and communities that are at risk of persecution or war crimes, such as Christians and Yazidis.

The bill also allows the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to provide assistance, including financial and technical assistance, to support the efforts of entities, including nongovernmental organizations with expertise in international criminal investigations and law, to address crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, or war crimes in Iraq since January 2014 by conducting criminal investigations, developing indigenous investigative and judicial skills to adjudicate cases consistent with due process and respect for the rule of law, and collecting and preserving evidence for use in prosecutions.

The State Department will now encourage foreign governments to identify and prosecute individuals who are suspected of committing such crimes, including members of foreign terrorist organizations operating in Iraq or Syria. Additionally, the State Department shall identify:

• threats of persecution, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes against members of Iraqi or Syrian religious or ethnic groups that are minorities in Iraq or in Syria with respect to whom the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has committed such crimes in Iraq or Syria since January 2014 or who are members of other persecuted religious or ethnic groups;

• persecuted religious and ethnic minority groups in Iraq or Syria that are at risk of forced migration and the primary reasons for such risk;

• humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery needs of these individuals; and

• entities, including faith-based entities, that are providing such assistance and the extent of U.S. assistance to or through such entities.

Why is this legislation necessary?

According to Rep. Smith, the bill’s original sponsor, less than 200,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from 1,400,000 in 2002 and 500,000 in 2013, before ISIS swept through the region on its genocidal campaign. Many of the remaining Christians in Iraq are displaced, mostly in Erbil in the Kurdistan region and need assistance to return to their homes and stay in Iraq.

Many Christian survivors of the ISIS genocide in Iraq and Syria had reported receiving no aid from the U.S. or the UN Smith said and they had been relying completely upon aid from donations of non-governmental organizations like the Knights of Columbus and Aid to the Church in Need.

“When genocide or other atrocity crimes are perpetrated, the United States should direct humanitarian, stabilization, and recovery aid to enable these people to survive-especially when they are minorities whose existence as a people is at-risk,” Smith stated on the House Floor before the vote Tuesday night. “HR 390 would ensure our actions match our words.”

Who supported the bill?

A broad range of Christian, Jewish, secular, and governmental organizations endorsed the legislation, including the Knights of Columbus, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Open Doors, HIAS, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).