Six months ago, Secretary of State John Kerry
officially designated Islamic State as “responsible for genocide”
against Christians, Yazidis and other vulnerable groups in areas under
ISIS control in Syria and Iraq. So why has the Obama administration
entrusted the survival of these people—and so much valuable American
aid—to a troubled office at the United Nations, which, like its parent
organization, has never even acknowledged that the genocide exists?
State Department says it is helping religious minorities who have fled,
along with millions of other displaced Syrians and Iraqis, primarily
through the U.N. America has sent over half of $5.6 billion in humanitarian aid earmarked for Syrians since 2012 to the U.N.
the U.N.’s lead agency for aiding refugees, the Office of the High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), marginalizes Christians and others
targeted by ISIS for eradication in two critical programs: refugee
housing in the region and Syrian refugee-resettlement abroad.
instance, the Obama administration’s expanded refugee program for Syria
depends on refugee referrals from the UNHCR. Yet Syria’s genocide
survivors have been consistently underrepresented. State’s database shows
that of 12,587 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. in the fiscal year
that ended Sept. 30, only 68 were Christians and 24 were members of the
Yazidi sect. That means 0.5% were Christians, though they have long
accounted for 10% of Syria’s population. In 2015, among 1,682 Syrians
admitted, there were 30 Christians and no Yazidis.
Asked about these numbers at a Sept. 28 Senate hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Simon Henshaw
asserted that only 1% of Syria’s registered refugees are Christians.
How to square that with the estimate that half a million Syrian
Christians—a quarter of that community—have fled, as Syriac Catholic Patriarch Younan warned in August.
Department officials variously speculate that Christians don’t want to
register for resettlement abroad, or that they are waiting in line
behind hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims who left Syria earlier.
there is evidence to suggest that the problem lies within UNHCR. Citing
reports from many displaced Christians, a January report on Christian
refugees in Lebanon by the Catholic News Service stated: “Exit options
seem hopeless as refugees complain that the staff members of the United
Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are not following up on their
cases after an initial interview.” This failure could be another example
of why the U.N. Internal Audit Division’s April 2016/034 report reprimanded the UNHCR for “unsatisfactory” management.
At a December press conference in Washington, D.C., I asked the U.N.’s then-high commissioner for refugees, António Guterres,
to explain the disproportionately low number of Syrian Christians
resettled abroad. The replies—from a man poised to be the U.N’s next
secretary-general—were shocking and illuminating.
said that generally Syria’s Christians should not be resettled, because
they are part of the “DNA of the Middle East.” He added that Lebanon’s
Christian president had asked him not to remove Christian refugees. Mr.
Guterres thus appeared to be articulating what amounts to a
religious-discrimination policy, for political ends.
As for why
so few Christians and Yazidis are finding shelter in the UNHCR’s
regional refugee camps, members of these groups typically say they
aren’t safe. Stephen Rasche, the resettlement official for the Chaldean
Catholic Archdiocese in Erbil, Iraq, told Congress last month that in
Erbil “there are no Christians who will enter the U.N. camps for fear of
violence against them.”
The pontifical Aid to the Church in
Need and the American Christian Aid Mission wrote in recent emails to me
that no Christians dare shelter in the U.N. Zaatari camp in Jordan,
which houses 80,000 Syrian refugees. As one Syrian Christian who was
resettled in the U.S. explained in the Sept. 26 Washington Examiner,
after fleeing ISIS in Aleppo, his family was too afraid of “becoming
targets of Muslim extremists” to go into Lebanon’s camps.
archdiocese, which oversees care for 70,000 people displaced by ISIS,
including half of Nineveh’s Christians, has reported that U.N. aid
bypasses them. As Mr. Rasche told Congress in September, “[S]ince August
2014, other than initial supplies of tents and tarps, the Christian
community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies
or the U.N.” He warned that the community faces extinction without more
groups also found no help from the U.N.-established Independent
Commission of Inquiry on Syria in its only report on ISIS genocide.
Issued in June, the report
focused solely on persecuted members of the Yazidi faith. The
commission—an influential adviser to the UNHCR—dismissed in a short
paragraph the notion that Christians also have been targeted for
Echoing ISIS propaganda and without citing evidence,
the commission report declared that ISIS recognizes their “right to
exist as Christians . . . as long as they pay the [Islamic] jizya
tax.” Not true, according to the Patriarch Younan and the Syriac
Orthodox Patriarch Aphrem, who told me in August in Rome that no intact
Christian communities or functioning churches remain in the parts of
Syria or Iraq under ISIS.
Genocide is the most heinous
human-rights violation. For America to entrust the survival of
communities on the brink of extinction to a U.N. operation that
routinely fails them is the height of cynicism.
administration should ensure that American aid reaches these displaced
minorities, including refugee visas for the neediest. Congress can make
sure that happens by quickly bringing to a vote the bipartisan Iraq and
Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, introduced Sept. 8 by
Reps. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) and Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.).
Ms. Shea is the director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.