Biden can build on Pope Francis’s visit to Iraq
Pope Francis is set to make history as he embarks on an apostolic journey to Iraq. The focus of his visit, entitled “You are all brothers and sisters,” signifies a clear objective of reconciliation between Iraqis. The nation since 2003 has been defined by Sunni-Shia conflict over domestic politics and finds itself struggling to recover after the genocide that ISIS committed against Christians, Yazidis, Shia Turkmen and Shabaks.
The situation for these communities is particularly dire. Iraqi Christians numbered more than 1.5 million before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and, by 2017, their numbers had fallen to fewer than 250,000 because of sectarianism and genocide.
It was a little over five years ago when ISIS targeted Iraq’s Christian heartland of the Nineveh Plains and the Yazidi bastion of Sinjar. ISIS killed many of these people, or sold them at sex slave markers, burned villages and crops, and desecrated and destroyed holy sites to erase these communities from the face of the earth. As a consequence, Christian and Yazidi communities there are weakened and divided, an effect of longstanding persecution and genocide.
Yousif Kalian, with the U.S. Institute of Peace, has remarked that Pope Francis’s visit will give a “huge vote of confidence” to these communities that are in desperate need of hope.
Leading the international community in genocide response is the best way that President Biden could build upon this papal visit and help prevent these vulnerable communities from vanishing from the map.
In particular, the Biden administration could make genocide recovery a major focus in the second round of U.S.-Iraq strategic dialogue, which was a topic of discussion on the Feb. 23 call between Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.
The U.S. and Iraq must ensure that regions such as the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar are stabilized. It is a national security issue for the U.S. because these areas have come under the control of armed groups closely affiliated with Iran that are launching rockets at U.S. troops stationed in the northern Iraq city of Erbil. On a humanitarian level, these militias also are preventing internally displaced persons from returning home.
Fortunately, assisting genocide survivors in Iraq has proven to be one of the most bipartisan causes in U.S. foreign policy.
In 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry and Congress officially recognized that ISIS was committing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq.
In 2017, then-Vice President Mike Pence announced it would be the Trump administration’s policy to provide humanitarian assistance to genocide survivor communities. The following year, Congress unanimously passed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act, reaffirming that the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) would support religious and ethnic minorities who survived the ISIS genocide. This was made possible by Democrats and Republicans working together, including Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.).
USAID has done historic work to aid genocide survivor communities since this support from Congress and the Trump administration, providing more than $389 million in assistance to ethnic and religious minorities in northern Iraq and partnering with more than 100 organizations as part of the Iraq Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response Plan. Part of this has included work with local religious communities in the New Partnership Initiative (NPI). This means that not only is the U.S. partnering with large organizations such as Chemonics International or Catholic Relief services, but also local Iraqi organizations such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil and Yazda. This work continued even though the State Department ordered USAID to reduce its staff in Iraq by 80 percent for several months because of political and security concerns.
The Biden administration could improve America’s genocide response by strengthening oversight with the State Department and USAID. Biden could work to ensure former ambassador Samantha Power, his nominee to lead USAID, has consistent funding to invest in this project long term. After all, the effects of genocide will not be reversed in just two or three years. Furthermore, he should appoint a special envoy for religious minorities in the region, a position mandated by law that no president has filled since its creation in 2014.
Biden knows the devastating effect of this genocide. In October, he expressed solidarity with Iraqi Christians on the 10th anniversary of the Our Lady of Deliverance Church Massacre in Baghdad. The president’s devotion to his Catholic faith is well known, and he has publicly praised the pope’s moral leadership. Now he should build on the pope’s visit to Iraq by strengthening America’s genocide response.
Steven Howard is the advocacy director at In Defense of Christians, which aims to protect Christians and preserve Christianity in the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter @smhfromthe408.
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