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Iraq-Syria genocide bill draws praise

WASHINGTON (BP) — The head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s religious freedom entity and his fellow advocates have praised bipartisan congressional action to help Christians and other survivors of genocide committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The House of Representatives approved without opposition Nov. 27 the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, H.R. 390, and sent it to President Trump. The Senate passed the bill in October, also without opposition.

The measure will provide humanitarian aid to Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities in the two Middle East countries. It also will support criminal investigations and prosecutions of the terrorists responsible for genocidal acts and crimes against humanity.

“As a nation, we must not be indifferent to the slaughter of the innocent throughout the Middle East,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “These atrocities cry out for justice. I am thankful this bill will help provide for those fleeing terror and work to bring perpetrators to justice.”

In written comments, Moore thanked Reps. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif. — the bill’s lead sponsors — for their “tireless work.” He looks forward to the president signing the bill into law and is “praying for swift implementation,” Moore said.

ISIS’ terror campaign during the last four years in Iraq and Syria has included execution, rape and sexual enslavement. Other ISIS atrocities cited by religious liberty advocates include torture, mass graves, assassination of religious leaders and the destruction of churches, monasteries and cemeteries.

The genocidal operation has produced massive displacement of religious minorities. Since 2013, the number of professing Christians in Iraq has declined from about 500,000 to less than 200,000, according to Smith’s office. Meanwhile, 60,000 Yazidis — a sect characterized by a patchwork of beliefs and practices — have departed for Europe and another 280,000 remain displaced, his office reported. Thousands of victims reportedly remain enslaved or missing.

While then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Congress both acted in 2016 to designate the campaign by ISIS as genocide, the legislative branch has not taken steps since then to solve the atrocities, according to the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI).

The House vote Nov. 27 was “a much-needed message of encouragement and commitment to the persecuted minorities in Iraq and Syria,” said David Trimble, a RFI senior fellow, in a written release.

A delegation from the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) visited Iraq in March and “witnessed firsthand the immense suffering of Yazidis, Christians, and other religious minorities and listened to their stories of egregious violations of their fundamental rights,” USCIRF Chair Tenzin Dorjee said in a written statement.

“These communities desperately need all the help they can get to reconstruct their lives,” Dorjee said. “This bill supports them and also ensures that those responsible for these horrible crimes face some measure of justice.”

Among its provisions, the newly approved bill directs or authorizes the administration to:

— Identify threats of persecution, genocide and crimes against humanity directed toward individuals in Iraq and Syria, as well as religious and ethnic minorities at risk of forced migration;

— Pinpoint faith-based and other organizations providing humanitarian assistance to genocide survivors and the extent of American aid through such groups;

— Give aid to entities conducting criminal investigations regarding genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes;

— Urge other governments to prosecute suspected perpetrators of such crimes.

Smith — a longtime champion of religious freedom and human rights — said in a written release the bill ensures “our actions match our words.”

In written comments, Eshoo said, “As survivors return to their homes and begin rebuilding their communities, the United States government must make it a priority to help families in need of assistance while ensuring the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity are held accountable.”

The House initially passed the legislation in June 2017, but the Senate approved an amended version that required representatives to vote again on the measure.