Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities living in the path of ISIS have suffered incredible persecution and hardship. From the start, 21Wilberforce has come alongside these beleaguered communities to listen, support, and amplify the voices of the oppressed.
In early 2015, shortly after ISIS troops overran the Sinjar region, 21Wilberforce traveled to Iraq where staff interviewed close to 75 individuals, including internally displaced Christians and Yazidis and senior Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials. The team received briefings from local and international human rights organizations, visited a frontline military location 1.5 miles from IS-controlled territory, and visited the Nineveh Protection Unit (NPU).
Upon return to the states, 21Wilberforce released a report of its findings titled, “Edge of Extinction,” at an event hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. This was followed by strategic placement of articles in the media and press coverage, resulting in global reach of several million readers.
As the depth of tragedy in Northern Iraq and Syria unfolded, Congress would play an important role in influencing the administration on this issue. Several congressional committees convened hearings on the manifold threat posed by ISIS — ethnic and religious cleansing and genocide in Iraq, U.S. counter-terrorism policy, and more. 21Wilberforce was there. Our team provided testimony at two congressional hearings and made a presentation on Iraq to the Republican Study Committee.
The 21Wilberforce team was also there to help lead a coalition of NGOs, advocacy groups, and congressional leadership to rightfully label the barbarous ISIS attacks and secure a designation of genocide. In March 2016, the House of Representatives voted 393-0 to declare genocide, only the second time in U.S. history that an active situation has been so declared. 21Wilberforce also was a lead advocate for the successful appointment of a U.S. State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Middle East.
In 2017, 21Wilberforce Distinguished Senior Fellow and former Congressman Frank Wolf and 21Wilberforce staff returned to battle-weary Iraq, where they visited Mosul, Mt. Sinjar, and Sinjar City, among other locations. By then, Iraq’s Christian population had dwindled from 1.5 million in 2003 to a mere remnant of 250,000. Families were leaving every day searching for security, economic opportunity, and education. For three long years, terror had displaced these minority families from their homes. Christians were not the only victims. The Yazidi community shared many of the same concerns. At that time nearly 3,000 Yazidi women and girls remained in ISIS captivity. Moreover, Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government had deemed their land “contested territory.” Multiple militias controlled it, and few families were able to return.
Following Congressman Wolf’s visit, 21Wilberforce published a second report titled, “Northern Iraq 2017,” which served as the basis for testimony before House and Senate subcommittees. The report, along with persistent advocacy with the White House and Vice President Pence by 21Wilberforce and its partner organizations, proved foundational to the 2018 decision for USAID to redirect $55 million in United Nations funding to directly assist Yazidi and Christian Iraqis. Further, we recommended the appointment of a Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, a position that has since been filled with the appointment of Max Primorac by USAID Administrator Mark Green.
Joining with other NGOs, 21Wilberforce also engaged in advocacy campaigns to encourage passage of H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2017. President Trump signed the bill into law in December 2018.
Iraq’s religious minorities have endured unspeakable hardship. From the beginning, 21Wilberforce has sought to ease the suffering as a faithful participant in the many advocacy campaigns carried out on behalf of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis. These campaigns have called to action fresh policy approaches and targeted humanitarian assistance, both essential to protect minority communities within their homeland.
“21Wilberforce has been a great advocate for minorities in the Middle East, especially Christians and Yazidis. They came to visit us when we were displaced and spoke on behalf of us, telling the world what ISIS has done to Christian and Yazidi communities.” —OP Dominican Sister of St. Catherine of Siena from Mosul, Iraq