Congress Considering Safe Zone for Persecuted Christians, Yazidis in Iraq

Jose R. Gonzalez | February 9, 2016 | 5:37pm EST
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A woman lights a candle in Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in front of photographs of slain Iraqi Christians. (AP photo)

( -- Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said that Congress is considering the creation of an autonomous region in Iraq to protect Christians and Yazidis from persecution by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and criticized the State Department’s lack of involvement in the ongoing discussions.

“There are discussions and there will be a resolution introduced in the House, I believe, to set up an into-the-plains, basically a protectorate, whereby Christians, Yazidis and other minorities [will be protected],” Wolf said at an event last week at the National Press Club in Washington.

However, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, noted that since the State Department was not part of the “serious discussion” in Congress, the prospects of establishing a safe zone for persecuted Christians and Yazidis in Iraq were not good.

Wolf, who championed human rights during his 17 terms in Congress, and Shea were part of a panel hosted by the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, an international religious freedom organization. asked Shea about the likelihood that an autonomous region for Christians and Yazidis will be created in the Middle East.

“That’s not going to be a part of a serious discussion because [their] voice isn’t there,” Shea said in response.

“Sadly the U.S.... religious freedom people from the State Department, Ambassador [David] Saperstein or a minority advisor, aren’t at those talks either, so it’s going to be very bleak for these minority groups.”     

Former Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).

Wolf agreed. “Again, as Nina said, you need them to be at the table,” he said.

Displaced Iraqi Christians who are currently living in Kurdistan “have very little hope of returning home, their homes have been demolished and... most of them have very little desire in returning home. They have no legal route out. There’s no country in the West that will accept them because ... technically they are not legal refugees,” Shea continued.  

Religious minorities still living within the sovereign borders of Iraq are not considered refugees under international law, which defines a refugee as someone with a “well-founded fear of persecution” who is living outside their home country.

“It is a disgrace that the UN runs these camps that we fund,” Shea said. “We have a lot of leverage over them, we’re the largest funder, and the Christian and Yazidis dare not enter these camps because it is so dangerous for them. The same thing would be true of any safe zones that are established. These minorities must be separated and protected,” she asserted.

“There are talks taking place in Geneva now on the fate of Syria, but there’s no Christian voice. There’s no one representing the Christian, the Yazidi, or minority communities in these talks,” Shea concluded.

According to Lou Ann Sabatier, communications director for the Wilberforce Initiative, the proposal Wolf referenced is called the Nineveh Safe Plain.

The Nineveh Plains is a region in the north of Iraq, about 30 miles north of Mosul.  On March 11, the European Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution to create a safe haven from ISIS, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), for religious minorities in the region.

A United Nations report published on Jan. 16 detailed the Islamic State’s continuing persecution of minority religious and ethnic groups.

“ISIL continues to target members of different ethnic and religious communities, systematically persecuting these groups and subjecting them to a range of abuses and violations. These acts exemplify ISIL’s apparent policy of suppressing, permanently expelling, or destroying some communities.” the report read.

But Shea pointed out that President Barack Obama has been reticent in calling these actions genocide.

Hudson Institute senior fellow Nina Shea. (Hudson Institute)

Shea also noted that since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, 53 Christians and one Yazidi have been admitted into the U.S. as refugees.  However, in fiscal year 2016, which began in October, there have been just six Christians and no Yazidis from Syria admitted as refugees.   

“This is a time when the administration is promising to admit 10,000 Syrian refugees,” she said. “Six Christians amount to less than one percent of the Syrian refugees admitted in the first quarter. Less than one percent. Christians comprised 10 percent of the Syrian population before the war.”

For over a year, Obama stalled in appointing a State Department official to focus on the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East. Obama finally appointed an advisor, not a special envoy, despite legislation passed by Congress authorizing the position.  

In contrast,  a special envoy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights overseas was appointed within a month of the introduction of a congressional bill.

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