By Ken Timmerman
Members of Congress from a bipartisan human rights panel on Thursday challenged the Obama administration to get serious about putting pressure on the governments of Egypt and Iraq to halt violent attacks on Christian minorities.
“Human rights has been significantly demoted in the past two years, and it’s appalling,” said Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J. “This administration gets an F for its response to human rights abuses.”
For Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., the granddaughter of Assyrian and Armenian Christians who fled the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks and their Kurdish allies at the end of World War I, the dramatic upsurge in attacks against Christians in Iraq and Egypt was reminiscent of stories she had learned from childhood.
“Going to the market and riding the bus, Iraqi Christians face death every day,” she said. “There is no question that Christians are being targeted” in Iraq.
Rep. Eshoo called on the Obama administration to “move this up in the set of priorities of the State Department” by elaborating a “comprehensive strategy” for dealing with the persecution of Christians in Iraq.
“A crisis calls for more than good intentions,” she said.
Although tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer funds have gone to reconstruction programs in Iraq, a scant $20 million has been allocated to projects in the predominantly Christian Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq, the ancestral homeland of many Iraqi Christians and a relative safe haven to which thousands of families have fled in recent years.
Worse, the way U.S. aid money has been spent is “not transparent,” Rep. Eshoo said.
So she and other members of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate recently asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a far-reaching audit of U.S. reconstruction assistance to Iraq, in particular as it touches on projects for Christian areas.
Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council of Chicago, Ill., told members in private meetings on Thursday that most of the $20 million has been misappropriated or diverted by the entities controlled by the neighboring Kurdish Regional Authority (KRG), including a private company allegedly controlled by the former prime minister of the Kurdish Region, Nechirvan Barzani.
“We have only seen $180,000 of that money reach the Nineveh Plain for a well,” she said.
Sister Maria Hanna, a Dominican nun who runs the al-Hayat maternity hospital in Baghdad, was promised a $1.2 million grant by the State Department to build a similar facility in Karakhosh in the Nineveh Plain.
Instead, the money was paid out by the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Mosul to a different entity not operating in the Nineveh Plain, which currently has no hospital at all for a population estimated at around 100,000.
The lack of schools, jobs, industry, and infrastructure, coupled to an exploding population of refugees who have fled the violence in Baghdad and Mosul, has led local leaders to despair.
“Many families leave after they have stayed here for awhile and see there are no jobs and they give up hope,” Bassam Ballo, mayor of Tel Kaif in the Nineveh Plain, told me during a trip to the region two years ago.
Since then, the situation has only gotten worse.
Gwendolen Cates, a documentary filmmaker from New York who just returned from northern Iraq, was stunned and saddened by what she saw.
“There is a level of despair I have not seen on any of my previous trips,” she told me. Some 1,800 Christian students at Mosul University are staying home from classes because they have received death threats — in some cases, letters handed to them by Muslim security guards working at the university itself, she said.
Rep. Eshoo said that a comprehensive strategy must address how to distribute assistance and development aid, how to protect communities at risk, how to help the Iraqi government in prosecuting the perpetrators of crimes against Christians, and streamlined asylum procedures for Iraqi Christians who are in imminent danger.
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who chaired Thursday’s hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill, slammed the Obama White House for its tepid response to the violence.
After the Oct. 31 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad by Muslim jihadists that killed 58 Christians attending mass, the White House “failed to even mention the word ‘Christian’ or ‘church,’ suggesting that this attack was simply part of a broader pattern of generalized violence in Iraq and not a targeted attack against an indigenous faith community,” Rep. Wolf said.
Wolf said he was exploring legislation that would require the State Department to designate special representatives in the embassies in Baghdad and Cairo whose sole job will be to monitor human rights and religious persecution.
In tandem with that move, Wolf said he wants President Obama to appoint a “special envoy” to persecuted minorities in the Middle East, who will report back to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress.
Wolf said he was motivated by the example of Sen. John Danforth, who was president Bush’s special envoy to the Sudan and whose personal prestige was instrumental in brokering the peace deal that led to last week’s referendum on independence for Southern Sudan.
The Obama administration seems poised to oppose such a move, or to acquiesce in a way that prevents any meaningful action.
Deputy Assistant of State Tamara Cofman Wittes was noncommittal when asked whether the State Department would favor such an appointment, noting that Republicans in the Senate had blocked the confirmation of the administration’s nominee to become ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a position created by Congress in legislation sponsored by Rep. Wolf that was strongly opposed by the Clinton administration.
The fact that it took the Obama administration two years to fill the ambassador-at-large position showed “a lack of passion” at the State Department to pursue religious persecution, Wolf said.
Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, also criticized the Obama administration for treating the latest bombings of Christian churches in Iraq and Egypt as isolated events.
“The goal of the extremists is to drive Christians from Iraq,” she said. “It is religious cleansing.”
Shea warned that the Commission this spring would debate whether to designate Egypt a Country of Particular Concern because of its failure to crack down on the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities.
Designation by the commission could lead to U.S. economic sanctions, a diplomatic chill, and possibly even a cut-off in U.S. foreign aid to Egypt, which continues to receive more than $2 billion every year from the U.S. taxpayer.
Shea said that Egypt “needs to address incitement to violence by halting government subsidies to clerics and media who incite to violence.”
There have been documented cases recently of government clerics in Egypt issuing death threats to Coptic Christians, she said.
Rep. Trent Franks issued a stern warning to the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
“It is increasingly difficult for us as Americans to maintain support for a government that is attacking the voices that would help sustain its own democracy, while defending the Islamic extremists who inflame religious intolerance,” Franks said.
“If no significant change takes place, I will call for the United States to reduce aid to Egypt.”
Dina Guirguis, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that Coptic Christians were being prosecuted by the Egyptian authorities “for praying inside their own homes without a permit.”
Muslims converts to Christianity are routinely discriminated against by the authorities, who stamp into their identity papers that they are “former Muslims,” a designation that is an open invitation to discrimination, she said.
Coptic Christians account for roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 80 million population, while in Iraq the Christian community has been decimated by the massive exodus and today accounts for less than two percent of Iraq’s 28 million people.
Representatives of the Chaldo-Assyrian-Syriac communities in the United States were asking Congress to support last month’s declaration by a coalition of 16 Christian groups inside Iraq for the creation of a “19th province” in Iraq in the Nineveh Plain.
“We don’t want this to be only for the Christians,” said David William Lazar, chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization of California. “We want it to be the only true multicultural, pluralist province in all of Iraq.”
Until recently, Christians inside Iraq have been divided over whether to press their claim under Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution for a separate province. But the dramatic surge in Muslim violence against Christians has convinced many community leaders that self-government is the only way to guarantee enough security to prevent the remnant of the community still in Iraq from fleeing into exile.
“We have recruited 3,000 people to receive police training, but the Iraqi government refuses to fund it,” said Alan Mansour, the U.S. representative of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM).
The ADM is the largest Christian party in Iraq and currently has three members in the Iraqi parliament.
Some 700 Christian policemen trained using funds appropriated with help from Sen. Mark Kirk were “demoted to become local guards” by the Kurdish authorities, he added.
Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., the firebrand of the freshman class of tea party representatives, said he was eager to join the battle.
“We have a responsibility to the Christians of Iraq. We need to stand up as a leader of the Judeo-Christian world and create options for Iraqi Christians so they can come to the United States or remain anchored to the ancestral homeland.”
West did two tours of duty as a U.S. Army officer in Iraq and served later in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser. He wowed audiences in Florida during the election campaign with his frank assessment of the threat from jihadi Islam.
“What’s going on in Iraq today is religious genocide,” he said. “When tolerance becomes a one-way street, it leads to cultural suicide.”
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