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ABC Documentary: The Rescue of Iraqi Christians

The ABC 20/20 documentary graphically portrayed how these Iraqi Christians threatened with genocide fled from their millennia old community of Qaragosh, Iraq, after a mortar attack by ISIS.  The Christian community they fled was one of the oldest in the Middle East and was violently desecrated by ISIS.  They were told by rampaging ISIS jihadis they had three choices; to flee, remain as virtual slaves or be killed. They were among the more than 170,000 internally displaced Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan threatened by barbaric apocalyptic ISIS less than 30 miles away.

The Qaragosh Christian community fled and became locked in a virtually immoveable massive traffic jam. They abandoned their vehicles fled on foot to Erbil. There they found  sanctuary in the courtyard of Mar Elia Chaldean Catholic Church presided over by resourceful Father Douglas Bazi.  At first housed in tents, the 560 refugees were subsequently housed in caravans, with space heaters, limited sanitary facilities and communal kitchens.  They were Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who dared not enter UN High Commission for Refugees reception centers in Kurdistan, that already house 1.8 million largely Muslim refugees, for fear of retaliation. They lived in fear of any future as they lack residency.


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Iraqi Christian Grandfather Nissan and his grandchildren Mar Elia Church Compound, Erbil, Kurdistan December 14, 2015. Source: ABC 20/20.

That is when a remarkable alliance came to their aid. The ABC 20/20 documentary, narrated by Elizabeth Vargas, outlined who were prime actors:

Glenn Beck‘s charity, Mercury One’s Nazarene Fund, raised more than $12 million for the evacuation and resettlement efforts of the refugees. Contracted by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, former U.S. counter-terrorism officers Joseph and Michele Assad have spent the past four months forging a close partnership with Father Douglas Bazi at Mar Elia. The Assads were managing the risky plan of getting the refugees out of Iraq and finding a country that would grant them asylum so they can start their lives over.

Slovakia, a predominantly Catholic country, agreed to open its doors to at least 25 Iraqi Christian refugee families — 149 people in total — on the condition that no terrorists would pass through the Assads’ security check.

The Hudson Institute Center for Religious Freedom in a press release about the ABC 20/20 documentary provided the time line and key actors involved in this dramatic rescue:

In summer 2015, Hudson Center for Religious Freedom director Nina Shea initiated a project  to resettle Iraq’s most vulnerable minorities in countries where they would have residency rights (denied them in Kurdistan), practice their religion freely, and be safe. On August 17, Chaldean Catholic priest Douglas Bazi, who operates the Mar Elia camp, met with Shea at her office and asked her help to resettle his refugees out of the region. Shea immediately agreed.

With the encouragement and support of Hollywood producer Mark Burnett, Hudson brought on as an advisor evangelical leader and author Johnnie Moore and contracted security expert Joseph Assad. For three months, the team carried out extensive research, vetting, planning, logistical support, advocacy and preparatory travel under this project.

During this period, Shea met with the Syriac Catholic Patriarch Younan, several other Iraqi bishops, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vice President of Slovakia, and diplomats, legislators and officials from dozens of countries in North and South America, Western and Central Europe, Australia, Armenia, and Kurdistan, as well as those of the United States.

It was the small Central European country of Slovakia that finally agreed to accept the Iraqi Christians, after being urged to do so by a key Vatican official who is Slovakian. On December 10, the Hudson team took these Iraqi Christian refugees to Slovakia in a plane chartered by Mercury One, the charity of media personality Glenn Beck, supported with [$12 Million in] funds donated by thousands of American citizens.

“While the world is focused on Syrian refugees, we never forget that tens of thousands of vulnerable Iraqi Christians who’ve escaped ISIS remain stranded in camps in Kurdistan and throughout the region with dim prospects of ever returning home,” said Nina Shea. “We hope our efforts will prompt other countries – especially the United States – to take them in.”

Slovakia is the first country to accept a large group of displaced “IDP” Iraqi Christians who survived ISIS and are displaced inside Iraq. Four days after Slovakia opened its doors, on December 14, and after closely observing the Center’s project, the neighboring Czech Republic announced it too would admit Iraqi Christian IDPs, beginning in January, 2016.

The United States does not accept Iraqi Christian IDPs for resettlement. Last summer, the State Department had even withheld two-week tourist visas from some of the same Christian children evacuated through the Center project last week; they had been awarded scholarships by a New Hampshire sports camp.

We have written about the plight of Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in Kurdistan and Syria and the refusal by our State Department to admit them under the Refugee Resettlement Program. We have published articles and conducted interviews about the genocidal threat towards Iraqi Christian with Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad and Joseph T. Kassab of the Iraqi Christian Advocacy and Empowerment Institute (ICAEI) in both the New English Review and interviewed them on The Lisa Benson Show.  The Lisa Benson Show has established the Queen Esther Project to assist in funding efforts for the rescue of Yazidis, Christians and other non-Muslim religious minorities faced with extinction by ISIS.

One of the suggestions made by Kassab of the ICAEI, is an emergency airlift akin to that used to evacuate 130,000 Vietnamese in the closing days of the Vietnam War.  That was the first wave of Vietnamese refugees that ultimately numbered over 1.2 million. Our State Department had the temerity to suggest that these threatened Christians were excluded when they are covered by one of the priorities in our Refugee Admissions Program, fear of religious persecution.  Moreover, as Shea of the Hudson Institute has written, Christians were apparently excluded from a proposed State Departmernt genocide ruling that only covered Yazidis.

Those Vietnamese refugees were brought to Gulf Coast and created a vibrant community engaged in shrimping and other economic enterprises.  There is a large Vietnamese Catholic Church, Our Lady of Martyrs, in our community.  Instead of admitting these threatened Christians, the Administration is granting admissions to Syrian and other Muslim refugees, despite concerns about possible ISIS terrorist infiltrators among them.  Iraqi and Syrian Christians would be easily vetted and would likely be admitted under Family Reunification Visa Programs. The question is will Americans who took time out from holiday preparation to watch the ABC 20/20 documentary  be aroused to contact the White House and Congressional Representatives to open this country to admit Iraqi Christians as productive citizens, as they did Vietnamese four decades ago.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.

U.S. State Department Denies Middle East Christians Refugee Status

iraqi christiansThe NER November edition interview with U.S. Iraqi Christian leader Joseph T. Kassab, “Iraqi Christians Face Extinction” is illustrated by the experience of Syrian Christians  Nina Shea of the Center for Religious Freedom writes about them in a National Review on-line article published, today,  “The State Department Turns Its Back on Syrian Christians and Other Non-Muslim Refugees.”  Shea’s bottom line tells why so few imperiled Iraqi and Syrian Christians and other non- Muslim minorities have been admitted by our State Department for asylum as humanitarian refugees. They are largely ‘urban refugees’ as Kassab pointed out in our Iraqi Christian interview. They don’t qualify under UN rules that our State Department slavishly adheres to. One of our first NER articles in January 2008 drew attention to that problem, “Why Is the UN Determining Who Becomes Humanitarian Refugees in the US?

Note this exchange with Kassab in our interview about the quandary facing Iraqi Christian ‘urban refugees’ in the Kurdish Regional Government:

Gordon:  What are the current conditions of Iraqi Christian refugee camps in the Kurdish Region and what kinds of assistance are they receiving?

Kassab:  The current conditions for Iraqi Christian IDPs are very chaotic and horrific. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is doing its best to provide for them. However, they are unable to absorb more than 3 million refugees from Syria and Yazidis in their region. The Iraqi government has done nothing for its citizen IDPs. Corruption is very high among the Iraqi government officials and that by itself makes distribution of relief to its IDPs very poor. The UN and humanitarian local and international NGOs are unable to function properly due to lack of coordination and efficient capacity. Therefore people are losing hope and are availing of any opportunity to escape abroad. Christians are urban refugees-IDPs meaning that they do not live in UN refugee camps. Instead they seek shelter with relatives, in unfinished buildings, parks and churches. Overall, this support can be very short lived because volunteering always has a sunset.

Shea cites the paltry admissions of Syrian Christians and other minorities by the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration:

Over the past five years of Syria’s civil war, the United States has admitted a grand total of 53 Syrian Christian refugees, a loneYazidi, and fewer than ten Druze, Bahá’ís, and Zoroastrians combined. That so few of the Syrian refugees coming here are non-Muslim minorities is due to American reliance on a United Nations refugee-resettlement program that disproportionately excludes them. Past absolute totals of Syrian refugees to the U.S. under this program were small, but as the Obama administration now ramps up refugee quotas by tens of thousands, it would be unconscionable to continue with a process that has consistently forsaken some of the most defenseless and egregiously persecuted of those fleeing Syria.

The gross underrepresentation of the non-Muslim communities in the numbers of Syrian refugees into the U.S. is reflected year after year in the State Department’s public records. They show, for example, that while Syria’s largest non-Muslim group — Christians of the various Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions — constituted 10 percent of Syria’s population before the war, they are only 2.6 percent of the 2,003 Syrian refugees that the United States has accepted since then.

Here is the explanation given by a State Department official concerned about religious minorities:

In an e-mail to me, Knox Thames, the State Department’s new special adviser for religious minorities, wrote that “many minorities have not entered the UN system because they are urban refugees.” That is, because they live far from the remote U.N. camps and aid centers, they lack the information and access to register. And, as is widely known, many non-Muslim refugees try hard to avoid these camps.

Like Iraqi Christians who opt for church-run camps over better-serviced U.N. ones, Syrian minorities fear hostility from majority groups inside the latter. According to British media, a terrorist defector asserted that militants enter U.N. camps to assassinate and kidnap Christians. An American Christian aid group reported that the U.N. camps are “dangerous” places where ISIS, militias, and gangs traffic in women and threaten men who refuse to swear allegiance to the caliphate. Such intimidation is also reportedly evident in migrant camps in Europe, leading the German police union to recommend separate shelters for Christian and Muslim migrant groups.

Shea noted the response by the current UN High Commissioner for Refugees at a recent Washington conference:

At a discussion of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on October 27, I directly questioned U.N. High Commissioner António Guterres, an otherwise ardent advocate of diversity, about the short shrift that his office has given all Syria’s non-Muslim minority communities. His rambling reply failed to reassure. He said that, while some individuals should be resettled, as a Catholic he felt that Christians should not leave, because they’re part of the “DNA of the Middle East”; moreover, he said, Lebanon’s former president asked him not to resettle the Christians. Was he revealing a policy of religious bias and unlawful geo-political calculations for U.N. refugee determinations? Or was his sentiment a smokescreen behind which he was trying to flick off an issue he regarded as insignificant?

Like Iraqi Christian advocate Kassab, a prominent Chaldean Bishop in the Western US, Sarho Jammo, is “imploring that Christians be included in the new allotments for humanitarian refugees from the Middle East issued by the Administration.

Shea concludes:

According to a recent UNHCR posting, 19,000 Syrians picked straight from “refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan” have received U.N. approval and are awaiting resettlement in the U.S.  In October, President Obama ordered their expedited admission. Without further action, however, only token numbers of non-Muslim minorities will be among those rescued. George Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, called it right about the Christian refugees and his words equally apply to Syria’s other non-Muslim communities: They are being “left at the bottom of the heap.”

It is clear from both our NER interview with Kassab and Shea that without Congress amending the Refugee Act of 1980 the State Department is fostering the extinction of Middle East Christians by adhering to UNHCR allotment criteria. If they cannot be provided sanctuary and asylum in the US, under the current UNHCR definitions, then special waivers should be granted lifting those restrictions to utilize the special P2/P3 Family Reunification Visa program.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review.