The World from The Hill: Bipartisan effort pressures Obama to help Iraq's Christians

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are fervently pressing the White House to stem mounting attacks on Christians in Iraq.

Fearful of fresh violence in Iraq, many of the oldest sects of Christianity in the ancient biblical land are planning low-key Christmas celebrations this year.

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Since 2004, 40 Christian churches and institutions have been bombed, according to the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America, seven on the eve of Orthodox Christmas alone in 2007.

In a recent letter to President Obama, the group warned that the current situation “promises more innocent Christian blood in Iraq, more turmoil in that country, and more shame for America.”

Lawmakers hope they can steer the attention of the White House to the intensifying violence.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), the only Assyrian member of Congress and a close friend of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), remembers well listening to her grandparents’ stories of family members being slain or fleeing the region, as they did when they came to the United States.

“History is repeating itself,” the congresswoman somberly told The Hill.

Eshoo and the co-chairman of the Religious Minorities in Iraq Caucus, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), have been trying to bring awareness to the plight of Christians in Iraq since the invasion of that country by coalition forces upended the sectarian dynamic, provided fertile ground for extremist groups such as al Qaeda to take root and put religious minorities under new pressure.

The protection of Iraq’s religious minorities takes on fresh urgency as both Washington and Baghdad eye the end of 2011 for the pullout of all U.S. troops.

“Each and every week we have less influence,” Wolf warned.

Before the ouster of Saddam Hussein, there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, comprising about 3 percent of the population, said Eshoo. Today, through a mass exodus and violence that has included a dozen members of the clergy killed or kidnapped, about 400,000 remain.

“The numbers are stunning,” Eshoo said. “We are really struggling to have the issue taken as seriously as it should be taken.”

The world’s attention was grabbed Oct. 31 when al Qaeda gunmen strapped with explosives stormed an evening Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad. The parishioners were praying in Aramaic, the ancient language said to be spoken by Jesus Christ.

The gunmen quickly shot the priest to death, then killed most of the parishioners in the front pew. A hostage standoff and a showdown with Iraqi security forces ensued, with 52 parishioners and police killed in the gunfire and bomb blasts.

It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since 2003, and those strongly condemning the violence included Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who leads Shiite Muslims in Iraq. But many report threats to leave the country quickly or their families will be killed as al-Qaeda affiliates vow to continue their assault. The U.N. refugee agency reported last week that about 1,000 Christian families had fled to the relatively peaceful Kurdish north from areas such as Baghdad and Mosul.

Those Christians who remain were warned to lay low.

“No Santa Claus, no celebrations, no gifts this year,” Archbishop Louis Sako, chairman of the Chaldean archbishops in Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya, said on Wednesday, according to Reuters. “We don't have the right to jeopardize others’ lives. ... We saw innocent people brutally killed while praying to God, so how can we celebrate?”

Still, about 40 parishioners braved the al Qaeda threats to celebrate Christmas Eve Mass at St. Joseph's Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad, according to an Agence France-Presse report. "The Christian community this Christmas is very afraid, very scared of the situation, and we take seriously the threats that we've received by Internet or by emails," the Rev. Saad Sirop Hanna said.

“We really unleashed something there,” Eshoo said. “It is enormously sad. There is no question they are being targeted because they are Christian.”

In February, the House passed 415-3 a resolution from Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), with 42 bipartisan co-sponsors, stressing concern about the plight of religious minorities in Iraq and urging U.S. assistance in helping the government in Baghdad assure the rights and security of those communities.

After the attack on the Syriac Catholic church, Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) introduced a resolution on Nov. 18, with 37 co-sponsors, condemning the bloodbath, calling on Washington to assist Baghdad in developing a comprehensive security plan and encouraging swift resettlement for those Iraqis wanting to flee religious violence.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Congress to pass the resolution, noting in a Nov. 29 letter that the attacks have been “horrific reminders of the appalling lack of security that has condemned many in Iraq to live in fear.”

Wolf and Eshoo fired off a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Nov. 5 calling on the administration to develop a comprehensive policy for the protection of indigenous religious communities in Iraq.

On Nov. 19, the caucus leaders spearheaded another letter to the Government Accountability Office, joined by lawmakers including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), asking that the GAO review the State Department and USAID distribution of allocated funding — $10 million in FY 2010 base appropriation — to assist protection and development efforts for Iraq's religious minorities. A delegation of Iraqi bishops visiting Washington over the summer, they wrote, reported that either many weren’t aware of the available funds or the assistance hadn’t reached its intended recipients.

And last week, Wolf sent a letter and DVD with a report on the Our Lady of Salvation attack to about 40 U.S. religious leaders of different denominations, asking that they consider “how you might use your influence within the church in the West to highlight this unfolding tragedy and possibly prevent what would surely be a devastating outcome — the extinction of Christians in Iraq.”

In an interview with The Hill, Wolf stressed the biblical history in what was once Mesopotamia, from the birthplace of Abraham to the home of Jacob, and the backdrop for events in the Old Testament books of Esther and Jonah.

He also criticized the Obama administration for not mentioning “Christian” or “church” in condemning the attack, charging that this downplayed the systemic targeting of the faithful.

“The United States strongly condemns this senseless act of hostage taking and violence by terrorists linked to al Qaeda in Iraq that occurred Sunday in Baghdad killing so many innocent Iraqis,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said after the massacre.

“What you’re seeing is the eradication of the Christian community,” Wolf said. “The world has pretty much turned away.”

That lack of attention, he said, includes not just this White House but the Bush administration as well. “Really, you're going to have to get this administration to do something,” he said, asserting that the congressional effort on the resolutions “keeps it alive.”

But there have been challenges, Wolf said, in moving the issue forward as time ticks on U.S. influence in the country and the attacks intensify.

“We very seldom get answers back,” he said. “To write the White House, it's like there's no one home: no response, no one calls.”

Eshoo said that “it’s an issue that's difficult for both administrations to wrap their arms around.”

“Let's put it this way — it’s not at the top of the list,” she said.

Wolf and Eshoo agree that the caucus members come together in truly bipartisan fashion out of deep concern for the issue.

The other members are Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Reps. Smith, Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Joe Pitts (R-Pa.), Jim Moran (D-Va.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) and André Carson (D-Ind.), who is one of two Muslims serving in Congress.

Members departing at the end of the 111th Congress are Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who has filled Obama’s former Senate seat, and Joseph Cao (R-La.), who was defeated in midterm elections.

“It matters not what area of the country anyone is from, what their denomination is or what their politics are,” Eshoo said.

With its own internal problems, the Iraqi government has been described as having mixed reactions and “weak,” in Eshoo’s words, actions to the pleas for greater protection for the Christians. Authorities have arrested several suspects in the attack, not all of them Iraqi.

Wolf said solutions to better protect religious minorities could include an effort to “literally cordon an area off, maybe in Kurdistan,” similar to the area where the Druze live in Lebanon. Lobbying groups have also encouraged the idea of an autonomous zone to be studied further, and Christians comfortably celebrated Christmas Eve in Kurdish northern Iraq.

“We probably should have someone in the embassy who does nothing else but this, use our remaining influence to put pressure on the Iraqi government,” Wolf said.

Eshoo wants to see a comprehensive administration strategy in place to tackle the crisis, including one that addresses the breakup of families as Christians have fled to nearby Jordan and Syria. She said it’s been a “heavy lift” to get and hold the attention of officials, particularly as people shift positions within agencies such as the State Department.

“As we celebrate the birth of Christ in the U.S. I think we need to be mindful and pray for those that celebrate it in different parts of the world, even in a part of the world where many Americans don't realize that history did not stop,” Eshoo said. “Christianity was born in the Middle East. [Iraqis are] suffering enormously because they are Christian.”

“They were just caught between the political winds and then the savagery that has broken out there,” she said.