Official admits: Resettlement the only option for saving Syrian Christians

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Displaced residents from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from Islamic State forces in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border with Iraq, August 11, 2014. | REUTERS/RODI SAID

WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – There are 228 armed opposition groups in Syria alone, all competing with one another for power against the Assad regime, the Islamic State or Al Qaeda's Al-Nusra front.

Pressed between them all are religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, who have been virtually annihilated from the region, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom told the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this week.

Robert P. George told the Commission the U.S. has to work to stabilize the region by alleviating the humanity crisis in Syria and neighboring Iraq. He recommended sending increased levels of humanitarian aid to internally displaced persons and to refugees who have already fled the zone of conflict.

Importantly, however, George said the effort to save religious minorities is not primarily centered upon developing a climate of religious freedom in place, or in the countries where what U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently called "genocide" is occurring at the hands of the Islamic State.

While the USCIRF can ask that both Syria and Iraq be labeled "Countries of Particular Concern" for their egregious violations of religious freedom and international courts be given jurisdiction over war crimes trials, the Commission's measures mostly only have hope of preserving the religious groups if they are resettled to other countries where a climate of religious freedom already exists.

The U.S., George also said, can provide "longer-term support in host countries for those who hope to return to their homes post-conflict." In particular, he said the UN, non-profit government organizations and friendly governments around Syria and Iraq (such as Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey) should promote religious freedom.

Further evidence that establishing religious freedom in the region is unlikely came as George concluded the U.S. government should "commit to a goal of resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees to the United States," after they had been vetted properly and prove no threat to U.S. national security.

Ironically, though, George called for the Department of Homeland Security to lower U.S. immigration law's "material support bar," so refugees who may have supported a terror group opposed to Bashar Al-Assad "under duress" could still enter the country.

Syria is only part of the problem.

Iraq, shattered by the growth of ISIS after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, also has a long road ahead in building a climate of religious freedom, George said.

He suggested the government of Iraq develop a plan to protect religious minorities and "establish the conditions for them to return to their homes," though it is uncertain how this could be accomplished without U.S. military assistance.

George suggested that any military and security assistance provided to the Iraqi government should be contingent upon the Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdistan governments integrating the nation's armed forces to reflect "the country's religious and ethnic diversity." He also said the governments should train soldiers to recognize "universal human rights standards and how to treat civilians, particularly religious minorities."

In the past year, some of the Iraqi Shiite militias which have gathered to fight ISIS have also attacked Sunni civilians and other religious minorities. George said the Iraqi government should prosecute those actions if they occur.