It’s Time For The Obama Administration To Let In Iraqi Christian Refugees

Sen. Rob Portman U.S. Senator (R-OH)
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Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities around the world today is a tragic reality. I have consistently spoken out on it and called on our government to do more to address it. I want to share a story of how persecution of Christians by radical Islamic extremists was recently brought home to me in a new and profound way.

On a recent trip to Israel, as I have done in the past, I visited the holy sites and, as best I could, retraced some of the steps that Jesus took. Along with my wife, Jane, we started with a journey to Bethlehem. A Palestinian Christian guide took us through the Church of the Nativity where we were able to kneel in the Grotto of the Nativity, and pray in the place where Jesus was born. We were touched and inspired.

We then went to Jerusalem, where we toured parts of all four quarters of the Old City – Christian, Jewish, Armenian, and Muslim. While there, we visited the location of the Upper Room, which some believe was the location of the Last Supper. We also walked the Stations of the Cross, stopping at various stations to recall the stories in the New Testament. That walk ultimately leads to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where we joined worshipers who came to see the place where many believe Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose from the dead. Once again, it was a deeply spiritual experience.

But we were also surprised and deeply moved by something else we saw. Before entering the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, near the Coptic Patriarchal Church and the Ethiopian Chapel, there was something new since my last visit to the church a few years ago. It was a large banner that hung just outside the entrance that displayed a photograph of Coptic Christians on their knees on a beach as they were about to be beheaded by ISIS terrorists. Innocents all in a row, about to die for the simple reason that they were Christians. Seeing that banner of persecution towards Christians and murder at that moment, as we had just been pondering the suffering of Jesus two millennia ago, made me redouble my commitment to call the world’s attention to stopping this horrific practice today.

This is a perilous time to be a Christian all over the Middle East.

One of those Christians is Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen who is suffering in an Iranian prison. His crime? His Christian faith. Unfortunately he is just one of the many Christian voices that Islamic extremists want to silence. Pastor Abedini is sitting in a prison while American diplomats negotiate sanctions relief for a regime that is the world’s number one state sponsor of terrorism. His release and the release of other American prisoners should be part of any agreement with Iran. I was pleased the Senate approved a resolution, which I cosponsored, that states that it is the official policy of the United States to secure the release of Pastor Saeed and other Americans illegally detained in Iran.

Thousands of Christians are also suffering in Iraq. For the past year, ISIS has waged a brutal campaign of terror throughout the country. Their quest to establish the world’s only caliphate has demonstrated to the international community that they will kill anyone who doesn’t conform to their radical interpretation of Islam. As a result, many Iraqis have fled their homes in fear of ISIS, hoping to escape their reign of terror, causing a mass migration that only continues to worsen one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees estimates that there are 2 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Iraq and over 300,000 refugees have fled violence in Syria. Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous province in northern Iraq, has inherited 1.4 million of these refugees including tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. We remember the massacre of Yazidis last year and the tens of thousands of Yazidis who were forced to take refuge in the Sinjar Mountains. I have heard in meetings with Iraqi Christians now living in Ohio that ISIS persecution is one of the reasons the Iraqi Christian population has gone from 1.4 million just a decade ago to fewer than 400,000 today.

Many of these Iraqi Christians are trying to emigrate to other, safer countries, including to the United States. Unfortunately, in Erbil, the city in the region where we have a U.S. Consulate, the U.S. does not process immigrant visa applications. This has created a roadblock for those who are desperately trying to exit the country.

Visa processing times are already notoriously slow, and allowing immigrant visas to be processed in Erbil could provide much needed relief. It would also demonstrate to the refugee population and the rest of the world that the United States government is committed to helping the thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities who have suffered enormously because of their faith.

I have written a letter to Secretary Kerry urging him to allow the U.S. Consulate in Erbil to begin processing immigrant visas. This is not an action that would require additional military steps, nor would it require the U.S. to spend billions of taxpayer dollars towards a new conflict in Iraq. It is a simple request that would help Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq escape the brutality and violence of ISIS terrorists and start a new life. Frankly, it is something that we should have been doing a long time ago. And we must consider additional steps to stop this barbarism.

Freedom of religion is part of our founding as a country, and has always been one of the most sacred liberties to the American people. We have a proud history of coming to the aid of religious minorities, and it is time for us to step forward again. We must not continue to sit on the sidelines as the situation gets worse. It is time to act. It is time to lead. And it is time to live up to our historical commitment to protect religious liberty around the world. In my journey of faith on the ancient stones of the Holy Land, I was reminded of that obligation.