America Must Stand With Iraqi Christians

Sen. Rob Portman U.S. Senator (R-OH)
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Today in Iraq, we are witnessing the systematic purging of Christians. In Mosul — Nineveh of Bible times — where Christians have lived for nearly two thousand years, the terrorist group the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has declared war on non-Muslims.

The leaders of the Islamic State have issued an ultimatum to local Christians: convert to Islam, pay a fine that few can afford, or “die by the sword.” Many have fled and been robbed of all of their possessions before they can get out of town. Some that remain have found their homes stamped with a symbol denoting their religion and marking them for death, and untold numbers have already been killed. A decade ago, 1.5 million Christians made Iraq their home. Today, fewer than 400,000 remain.

Even before the founding of our country, religious liberty has been sacred to the American people. And when that freedom has been threatened around the world, we have led the fight against those who would deny it, lending spiritual, economic, and military support to oppressed peoples. Today we must act in Iraq.

Our government bears some responsibility for what we are seeing unfold. When we left Iraq in 2011, we failed to maintain the limited military and intelligence presence needed to secure the gains our men and women in uniform had made over eight years of war. Without our leadership, the nascent Iraqi government did not fill that void. So into the power vacuum stepped radical Islamists, bent on capturing as much territory as possible and establishing a new Caliphate — an Islamic state that was also a goal of al-Qaeda. They now control a large swath of land in Iraq and Syria, and in those areas they are engaged in religious cleansing on a grand scale.

We cannot sit idly by as Christians in Iraq suffer. Recently, President Obama declared on Religious Freedom Day that religious liberty “is not just an American right; it is a universal human right to be protected here at home and across the globe.” We must put action behind those words.

Today, I am introducing a bipartisan resolution in the United States Senate. It reaffirms our commitment to protecting religious freedom around the world. It calls upon the State Department to coordinate with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Iraqis, our allies in the region, and the thousands of refugees who have come to our country over the decades, to work together to secure safe havens for those in Iraq seeking refuge from religious persecution. It demands that the Iraqi government do more to protect religious minorities within their borders, and it urges the administration to ensure the timely processing of visas for Iraq’s minority groups fleeing religious persecution.

These steps will not end the violence in Iraq, but they will give Iraqi Christians a chance to escape with their lives. Some of our allies are already providing asylum to these persecuted Christians. The U.S. must do more.

Moving forward, the United States must also re-engage with the world and provide the kind of leadership that global stability and security require. We are now seeing the consequences of our disengagement around the globe — from Iraq to Ukraine to North Korea.

Whether it is Pastor Saeed, an American imprisoned in Iran, or Ohioan Jeffrey Fowle who is languishing in a North Korean prison camp, apparently for leaving a Bible in a hotel room, we must support persecuted Christians around the world, and I will continue to do so. When America is strong, when we stand unequivocally for justice and the freedom of all people to practice their religion, when we do not back down in the face of threats and intimidation, that is when we see a world that is more stable, less dangerous, and more free.

By taking steps to end the persecution of Christians and other minorities in Iraq, we can begin to send a message to the world that we will not stand idly by as our basic, human freedoms are violated. While we must continue to pray for Iraqi Christians, the United States of America — a country founded by those fleeing persecution — must also take action to help them.