'I Hope It's Not Too Late': Senator Hears Pleas from Anguished Iraqi Christians
As the lead sponsor on a resolution calling for urgent action to protect religious minorities in Iraq from the Islamic State, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) had planned to sit down with Iraqi Christians once he arrived back in his home state last week for the summer recess.
The situation would dramatically take a turn for the worse in the short time between when the upper chamber adjourned and the senator arrived for his previously scheduled meetings at Calvary Bible Baptist Church in Westerville, Ohio.
After hearing the first accounts from members of the Iraqi Christian community on Friday, and before sitting down with another group that drove in from Detroit to bend the senator's ear, Portman summed up to PJM the content of the closed-door conversations: "a lot of tears and a lot of concern."
"We just had a guy leave who was in tears," Portman said. "His four sisters and brother are in Mosul -- they call it Nineveh -- and were told by ISIS fighters 'we insist that you convert to Islam' or pay a fine they couldn't afford."
Plus, the Christians didn't exactly trust that ISIS wouldn't hurt them if they did pay the tax.
Facing execution, the man's family chose to flee. "They had to leave quickly, then they were robbed," Portman said, leaving them stranded with "no money, no ID, no car." The family convinced a taxi driver to take them to three different churches in other small towns.
"All the churches were full," Portman said, packed with frightened refugees uncertain of when Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) fighters might beat down the door. "They had to live in the street. Now they're in a church somewhere -- he wouldn't say where -- and they're scared to death."
The Christians reported that ISIS is marking the doors of the faithful with a large "N" -- for Nazareth.
Portman introduced on July 30 a resolution to express the sense of the Senate on the urgent need to protect religious minorities from ISIS. On Aug. 2, the attempted extermination of the Yazidis began when ISIS routed them from Sinjar and forced them up onto a nearby mountain, laying siege as children and the elderly began dying from thirst and the elements.
The resolution, with 41 bipartisan co-sponsors as diverse as Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and David Vitter (R-La.), calls on the State Department to work with the Kurdish and Iraqi governments as well as neighboring countries to establish safe havens as needed for the persecuted minorities. It calls on the Iraqi government to add a special representative for religious minorities, and urges President Obama to "ensure the timely processing of visas for Iraq's minority groups fleeing religious persecution, in accordance with existing United States immigration law and national security screening procedures."
Portman said he believes the growing Senate momentum for supporting Iraq's religious minorities helped push the administration to announce humanitarian drops to the besieged Yazidis and airstrikes against ISIS on Thursday night.
Unfortunately, Democratic leadership in the Senate did not allow a vote on the resolution before recess. Lawmakers won't be in session again until Sept. 8.
A Senate aide told PJM that the holdup on the bill was a desire by leadership to push it through the markup process in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the bottleneck of bills before recess was too great.
The bill is likely to not only get its due attention upon the return of Congress but hearings to assess what the administration has been doing to help religious minorities in Iraq and what it could be doing much better.
Portman said the current onslaught against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq "was entirely predictable, unfortunately."
"Every day that goes by there's more and more devastation and loss of life," he said. "We've got to move and move quickly."
The senator supports the strikes against ISIS targets. But, he added, "I don't know if the military action is going to be effective in protecting the Christians who are left in Iraq."
That's because of how far ISIS has gotten ahead in the "systematic purging of Christians in some towns."
"I really believe the Iraqi Christians won't be the last group that is negatively affected" by how ISIS has grown in leaps and bounds, Portman said, stressing that the Islamic State is putting moderate monarchy Jordan under a lot of pressure.
"Ultimately, this is giving ISIS a platform to attack us," added the senator, who sits on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"I think the administration is not eager to acknowledge the fact that the way in which we left Iraq has created more vulnerabilities."
While lessons learned should be a guiding force in policy decisions moving forward, and the death and destruction we're now seeing are "symptoms of a larger problem -- the lack of a coherent strategy for the Middle East," he stressed that the current crisis is "an opportunity for us not just to regain some of our standing but to right some of the wrongs that have been created by the way we left Iraq."
"We are late to the fight -- no question about it," Portman said. "I hope it's not too late. It can't be. We can't let this caliphate be a launching point for attacks on the West."
The Iraqi Christians he met with were heartened, he said, that there is a "bipartisan Congress who understands the plight of their relatives and wants to help any way possible."
Most of the Iraqis in the meetings were American citizens, "very proud" of their adopted homeland and its religious tolerance -- and eager to see the administration embrace "more aggressive" asylum provisions for their brethren fleeing ISIS.
"They believe Kurdistan is the last refuge in Iraq," said Portman, adding that meeting the families was a "very emotional, very powerful experience."
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