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Beyond ISIS

Billions of dollars in U.S. humanitarian aid aren’t reaching Iraq’s Christians

Iraqis attend a service in the Assyrian Orthodox church of Mart Shmoni, in Bartella, on Dec. 24. Maciej Moskwa/NurPhoto/Sipa via AP

Beyond ISIS
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A spate of bombings in Iraq and Turkey shows militants belonging to ISIS aren’t ready to give up. Twin blasts ripped through central Baghdad on New Year’s Eve and again on Jan. 2, leaving more than 50 dead and hundreds wounded. ISIS also spawned a New Year’s Day shooting at a nightclub in Istanbul, killing 39.

But the bombings were a distraction from recent ISIS military losses in Syria and Iraq. With the group’s plans for a global caliphate largely diminished, an international coalition is readying plans to restore damaged cities and towns recently captured from ISIS.

Overall, the violence has affected every religious and ethnic group. But nearly a year after the United States and others—including the European Union—declared ISIS actions to be genocide against Christians and other minorities, billions of dollars in humanitarian aid aren’t reaching these believers. Upcoming rebuilding efforts also appear to exclude affected Christians, whose population has dwindled by close to 80 percent since the 2003 U.S.-led war—from 1.4 million to under 225,000. Displaced by ISIS invasions since 2014, many of the remnant are sheltering for a third winter in unfinished buildings or temporary unheated trailers.

More than 3 million Iraqis have fled their homes since ISIS seized territory in Iraq in 2014, and the United States has allocated $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid, with an additional $1 billion made available in last year’s stopgap spending bill for “economic support” for populations affected by ISIS. UN programs manage a significant portion of that funding. But for Christians nothing has changed since a Chaldean representative, Stephen Rasche, testified to Congress last September: “The Christian community in Iraq has received nothing in aid from any U.S. aid agencies or the UN.”

U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, went to assess the situation for himself after hearing testimony from Rasche, an American attorney for the Chaldean archdiocese in Erbil. The diocese oversees care for approximately 70,000 people displaced from Mosul and Nineveh Plains, for nearly three years now relying entirely on private church-based donations.

Smith arrived in Erbil on Dec. 23 and told me he could not gain security clearance from the U.S. Consulate there or the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to visit the church-based camps. The lawmaker traveled without official U.S. security to Ashti-2, at 6,000 residents the largest Christian camp. Unlike camps for Muslims in the area, it receives no support from USAID or from U.S. government-funded NGOs like the International Rescue Committee and Save the Children.

“I could not be more disappointed,” Smith told me by phone from Washington after his return, “that especially after the last three years these Christians have not gotten more help. The funding is there, and we have asked repeatedly for money, but they have bypassed the Christians.”

I could not be more disappointed that especially after the last three years these Christians have not gotten more help. The funding is there, and we have asked repeatedly for money, but they have bypassed the Christians.

Last year the Republican-led Congress allowed to die without a vote a bill introduced by Smith to address the discrepancy and protect minority communities in Iraq, H.R. 5961. December’s stopgap spending measure included $1 billion in economic support aimed at victims of ISIS genocide, but it did not specify minority groups and has no reporting mechanism to ensure how the money is spent.

The UN Development Program (UNDP) is expected to manage U.S. and other funding to rebuild Iraqi towns laid waste by ISIS, with $48 million already committed by the United States for “immediate stabilization.” UNDP’s latest report shows about 20 distribution centers across Iraq—but not one facility is located in Christian areas of Nineveh Plains.

Many of those historic villages and sites around Mosul—including ancient churches, monasteries, and shrines marking the birthplaces of Old Testament prophets—already have been liberated from ISIS and are currently controlled by Kurdish or other militia forces. Residents, however, have not been allowed to return until security and reconstruction plans are in place.In the camp in Iraq, Smith said, he was able to attend a Christmas program with about 200 elementary students singing. “What’s striking are the signs of joy and the lack of complaint,” he told me. “But if the takeaway is they are doing OK, they are not doing OK because we are doing what we should to help them, but it’s their faith. That’s what is getting them through it.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C.



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