By Haig Hengen (@haighengen)
June 22, 2015
Last week, Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) and Jeff Denham (R-CA) issued a joint statement after meeting with the White House National Security team to urge assistance to persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. The lawmakers suggested a three-pillar approach, which follows the Armenian Assembly of America’s House Appropriations testimony earlier this year, such as humanitarian aid, special refugee status in the U.S. for persecuted individuals and families who wish to emigrate, and direct military assistance for Christian self-defense forces in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).
Once again fighting for survival, one of the largest minority populations impacted by ISIS are the Armenian Christians living in Syria and Iraq, an area where Christians are targeted and killed. Armenians as a people have continually faced death and persecution because of their religion. Although the Armenian Genocide occurred 100 years ago, persecution and murder of Christians in the Middle East is prevalent once again. Syrian Armenians, mostly descendants of Armenians who escaped the Ottoman Turkish state now must escape the Islamic State. This terrorist organization has made it its duty to seek out Christians in Syria and force them to either convert to their form of Islam or die. “Christianity in the Middle East is shattered. ISIL’s genocidal campaign of religious cleansing has placed horrific pressure on the region’s ancient Christian communities and other faith minorities,” reads the joint statement. Many of these Armenians rely on the assistance of the United States and other Western countries in order to survive.
The safety of persecuted Armenians in Syria is essential because of their impact on society. Minority Christian groups like the Armenians maintain a significant role throughout the Middle East. “The stability and cultural identity of the Middle East depends in part on its vibrant mosaic of religious minorities. Christians in the region are longstanding pillars of civil society and essential allies in the efforts to promote pluralism and combat extremism. As ISIL works to exterminate the innocent and vulnerable members of this faith tradition, all people of good will should express concern for their protection—a cause that is essential to civilization itself,” reads the joint statement.
As part of the three pillar approach suggested by lawmakers “The United States can come to the aid in Syria by providing humanitarian assistance, special refugee status for victims, and empowering them to defend themselves,” they said. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has requested $819 million be used for The Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) program. These programs aim to provide for the basic needs to sustain life, including emergency shelter and medical care for populations in distress especially Armenian and minority Christians in Syria.
Bryan Ardouny, the executive director of the Armenian Assembly, delivered the same message in his testimony. Ardouny “urged the FY 16 Subcommittee to direct the State Department and USAID to allocate additional funds to Armenia as it seeks to absorb refugees from Syria as well as implement measures to ensure that gaps in distribution of relief aid are addressed so that all those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance are reached.”
In addition to humanitarian aid, Reps. Fortenberry, Eshoo and Denham believe that the USAID and State Department must make it a prerogative to ensure minority Christians, “who wish to leave should have access to a priority refugee status process with the State Department. The current multi-year wait period is simply too long for religious minorities under constant threat of death, torture and starvation,” according to the joint statement
The joint statement builds on legislation that was initiated by Fortenberry, Eshoo and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA) last congress. The members “led passage of a bipartisan resolution (H. Res. 683) last year condemning the severe persecution that Christians and other ethnic and religious minority communities are suffering in Iraq. The resolution also called for an international humanitarian intervention to aid these innocent civilian groups,” reads the joint statement. The US possesses the power to ensure the safety of those who face genocide. It is our country’s duty to ensure that the Armenian people and other Christians do not face another extermination as they did 100 years ago. The US has the ability to protect these people, but do we have the will to do so? It is imperative that the US direct aid and enact legislation that protects the Armenian people and other minority Christians before it’s too late.
Haig Hengen is a government affairs intern at the Armenian Assembly of America. He is currently studying international economics with a minor in Arabic at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.