Pope Francis and our obligation to preserve religious freedom in the Middle East

September 21, 2015
By Anna G. Eshoo

History will be made this week in Washington when for the first time ever a pope will address a joint session of Congress. Poverty, climate change and immigration are all expected to be prominent issues during Pope Francis' visit, and they should be because how we overcome these challenges will define us as a nation.

The papal visit is set against the backdrop of an existential crisis in the Middle East that demands an urgent global response: The genocide of the world's oldest Christian communities.

Over the past decade we have witnessed an acceleration of assaults on Christians in the Middle East, particularly by the Islamic State, in Iraq, Egypt and Syria. The barbarism of ISIS has included the torture and murder of thousands, and the displacement of millions of Yezidis, Christians, Turkmen, Sabea-Mandeans, Kaka'e, Kurds, Shabaks and Shi'a. Families are being torn apart. Fathers and brothers executed. Mothers and sisters enslaved.

These ethnic and religious minorities constitute an integral part of the region's cultural fabric and their persecution is in clear violation of national and international laws and treaties.

During his trip to South America in July, Pope Francis called for an end to this genocide of Christians in the Middle East. He said, "In this third world war ... which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place, and it must end." His efforts at the highest level are essential and offer a leading voice for the voiceless. Lesser-known yet critically important work is also being done at the grassroots level.

A summit was convened two weeks ago on Capitol Hill by In Defense of Christians to raise awareness among members of Congress and the public. A central rallying cry focused on a bipartisan resolution I recently introduced with my co-chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, Congressmen Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb. The Christian Genocide Resolution declares that genocide is taking place against Christians in the Middle East and that members on both sides of the aisle should support the resolution.

Making an official statement labeling these atrocities for what they are, genocide, is also a step toward broader response. Humanitarian aid, the security of religious minorities and an expedited pathway to refugee status in the U.S. are essential. U.S. Agency for International Development partners have reached only 24 percent of the displaced population residing outside refugee camps with non-food humanitarian assistance. And there is currently a 16-month waiting period for priority refugee status with the State Department.

I've introduced a bipartisan bill in Congress to deliver relief and protection for religious minorities. The Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act would allow non-state actors to be designated as violators of religious freedom, granting the administration better tools to address extremism and violence in groups like Boko Haram and the Islamic State. And Congressman Juan Vargas, D-Calif., is leading on bipartisan legislation to grant persecuted individuals in ISIS-held territory access to priority refugee status processing at the State Department.

Progress was made last week when the administration appointed Knox Thames as Special Envoy at the State Department charged with focusing exclusively on the plight of religious minorities in the Middle East. Former Congressman Frank Wolf, R-Va., and I championed the law to create this position in the last Congress, and this long-awaited appointment is welcomed.

The papal visit presents a unique opportunity to send a message to the world in condemning the act of genocide as the most barbaric and criminal act of humankind, and propel a global response. It's an existential crisis for religious minorities in the Middle East, and it is a defining moment for America.

Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo is a Democrat representing California's 18th Congressional District and serves as Co-Chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus. Published in the September 21, 2015 edition of The Washington Examiner.