A small Congressional body is gearing up to address the needs of the Middle East’s Christians and other religious minorities, who continue to suffer at the hands of ISIS and other persecutors. Thousands have left their homes and are struggling to survive the winter in flimsy tents, and many in Congress are pushing for America to do more.
Nebraska Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry will serve as the new co-chair of the 15-member House Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus, whose other leader is California Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo. Fortenberry’s co-chairmanship was announced on Monday.
Fortenberry’s district in Nebraska is home to the largest U.S. community of Yazidis, the small religious group targeted for elimination by ISIS last summer. In August, he helped pass the bipartisan House Resolution 683, which demanded a humanitarian intervention to assist those suffering persecution in Iraq.
Fortenberry explained to this reporter how his interest in the Middle East’s religious diversity began as a teenager. On an exchange program in Egypt, enjoying 1979’s Camp David accords, Fortenberry met a Muslim man with a Coptic Christian neighbor. The Muslim took his neighbor’s wrist, adorned with a traditional cross tattoo, and pressed it to his forehead, “showing me that there is no threat to me as a Christian — ‘you are welcome here.’”
One concern for the caucus is the special envoy for Near East religious minorities, a position passed into law just before 2014’s Congressional summer recess. President Obama has not yet appointed a candidate for the post, who would advocate exclusively for the safety of often-ignored religious groups in the region.
Fortenberry also said one of his priorities is strengthening U.S. relations with the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq’s north, where many have sought safety after being displaced by ISIS. “They deserve a higher level of trust,” he said.
He hopes Kurdistan can become a U.S.-supported protection zone for religious minorities, which he believes is a realistic goal. Members of the Kurdish Regional Government have told him that “they’re fighting for two things: they’re fighting against ISIL and they’re fighting for values that we support.”
And of the former Christian stronghold now under ISIS control, he frankly asked, “Who’s going to take back Mosul? It’s not the Iraqi army, it’s going to be the Kurds.” Iraq’s federal government has struggled to fight back the terrorist group, though Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has taken steps to eliminate corruption and increase effectiveness in the country’s army since taking office in September.
Eshoo is a Chaldean Catholic whose parents both came from the Middle East’s ancient Christian communities before fleeing to the United States. She has been among the few Democrats to consistently support legislation to protect and assist the region’s religious minorities against Islamic terrorism.
The Senate recently confirmed Rabbi David Saperstein as the new Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a post that had been vacant for over half of Obama’s tenure. Widely respected by conservative and liberal religious-freedom activists, Saperstein will oversee a modest office at the State Department and attempt to overcome bureaucracy to help those oppressed for their faith worldwide.
Fortenberry acknowledges that his new task depends on many factors outside his control. Recalling the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, he says, “the Islamic world has to enter into a dialogue with itself: can certain tenets of Islam reconcile themselves with Western values, based on the universal desire in all human hearts to act without fear of violence?”
He insists that jihadis “have taken on a twisted worldview that sees the promotion of their ideals through violence as an act of religious fervor. That’s contrary to the human experience, including most Muslims’ understandings of God.” But in the meantime, he says, “we’re not going to ignore this threat to civilization itself.”
This report, by Ivan Plis, was cross-posted by arrangement with the Daily Caller News Foundation.