As the deadline looms for the State Department and USAID to provide portions of more than $1 billion in aid to the religious minorities targeted for genocide by ISIS in Iraq, the children of Christian and Yazidi refugees are pleading directly to President Trump to take action.
A series of photos provided exclusively to Fox News show the young refugees at camps in Mt. Sinjar and Dohuk holding up makeshift signs saying, “God Bless USA” and “Don’t forget us President Trump,” to put a human face on their longstanding plight in Northern Iraq.
“I think it will strike the conscience to see the real faces of innocent children who need to be rescued,” Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer, and Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said to Fox News. “When images of the Yazidis fleeing Mt. Sinjar were made public, it galvanized the previous administration to go back with troops, food drops and other aid after our military had already pulled out of Iraq.”
“We saw something similar with President Trump’s actions after the chemical attacks in Syria.”
It was over a year ago when then-Secretary of State John Kerry publicly declared in March 2016 that ISIS was “responsible for genocide” against the religious minorities of northern Iraq. A total of $1.3 billion was eventually earmarked for humanitarian aid under the Consolidated Appropriations Act, but many of Iraq’s Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have yet to see a dime. The Consolidated Appropriations Act will expire this week at the end of the fiscal year.
Catholic and Christian Churches submitted a request on September 15 to USAID for the immediate release of $22 million of the $1.3 billion allocated for immediate relief.
Shea tells Fox News that the funds have not been released due to what USAID officials have referred to as a “religion blind” policy in which they claim the U.S. cannot release money to religious groups despite the statutory mandate to assist these communities. The deadline comes as an exception was made for the Rohingya Muslim refugees from Myanmar, which received $32 million in aid.
“It is always good when people who are in danger are helped. But why is there a terrible disparity between our government’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma and the absolute lack of help for Christians in Iraq — whom Secretary Tillerson declared last month to be victims of genocide,” she said in a statement to Fox News. “The principles at stake are enormous. In Iraq, we should be helping people that are victims of genocide. But our government is not. We should be caring for all religious minorities. But our government is not. We should be concerned about religious freedom. But our government is not.”
Officials for USAID tell Fox News that any assertion that the United States is not providing support to vulnerable communities in Iraq is false.
“Since FY 2014, the U.S. government has provided nearly $1.7 billion to address the humanitarian needs of Iraqis both inside Iraq and in the region, including vulnerable members of minority communities, like the Yazidis and Christians,” the official said. “This includes an additional $264 million announced on September 20. In addition, we have provided $115 million, with more pledged, to the successful UNDP Funding Facility for Stabilization. This has resulted in 2.2 million Iraqis returning to their homes. A sizable proportion of this assistance is in minority communities.”
The official adds that humanitarian assistance is based on need over religious affiliation.
“[B]ut minorities are among the principal beneficiaries,” they said. “Humanitarian assistance is provided to both internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps, and to IDPs living in communities – often with families.”
In 2003, Iraq’s Christian population was an estimated 1.4 million, according to ADF International. The Nineveh Plains region, also known as the Plain of Mosul, in northern Iraq was a centuries-old homeland for the country’s Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian Christians. Then the U.S. invaded Iraq, unleashing a wave of sectarian violence that hammered churches. Christians fled the Nineveh plain, and as of late last year, the number of Christians in Iraq had fallen to an estimated 275,000.
One reason for the exodus was ISIS conquering northern Iraq in 2014. The terror group launched an organized massacre against the church as well as against other minority religions like Yazidis. But today, a U.S. coalition has eliminated the Islamic State’s chokehold on much of northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul.
The dwindling numbers are due to genocide, religious refugees fleeing to other countries, internal displacement and others disavowing their faith.
It has been estimated that a dozen Christian families fled Iraq each day during the ISIS occupation of the northern half of the country. Christians who have managed to escape ISIS have fled to places like Europe and Lebanon. Others simply wandered the region avoiding U.N.-operated refugee camps for fear that Muslim refugees in the camps would target them.
Shea says that there is still hope for the religious minorities of Iraq.
“It’s not impossible to show that the U.S. can act quickly, as we saw with the Rohingyas,” she said. “It’s not subject to bureaucracy or lack of inertia.”