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Cotton Speaks on the Senate Floor on the Persecution of Religious Minorities in Syria and Iraq

March 17, 2016

Six months ago, a 12-year-old boy stood before a crowd in a Syrian village not far from Aleppo. This boy was a Christian, and standing above him were Islamic State terrorists holding knives. In the crowd was the boy's father, a Christian minister. Methodically, the terrorists began cutting off the young boy's fingers. Amidst his screams, they turned to the minister, his father. If he renounced his faith and, in their terms, "returned to Islam," the boy's suffering would stop.

In the end, however these ISIS terrorists killed the boy, killed his father, and killed two other Christians solely over the faith they professed. They did so by crucifixion. In the time of Christ, the cross was not just a means of execution, but a brutal and public warning to all. Because of Christ's suffering, the cross was transformed into a revered symbol of his sacrifice and the promise of salvation. But today, it's clear that ISIS seeks to turn it once again into a message of dread.

Eight other Christians in the village that day were killed. They were executed by public beheading. But not before ISIS barbarians raped the two women among the victims, and forced a crowd to witness the atrocity.

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Today was the deadline set by law for Secretary of State Kerry to present Congress with an evaluation of the persecution of Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. And I am heartened that Secretary Kerry this morning took the needed step of declaring the systematic murder of religious minorities by ISIS what it plainly is: genocide.

The nature of the horrific crimes of ISIS has not been a secret.

It's no secret that the story of the torture and death of that 12-year-old Syrian boy, his minister father, and ten other Christians is repeated many times over in different villages with different victims, of different religions, throughout the region.

It's no secret that hundreds of thousands of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq have been driven by war and violence from homes and lands they have held for generations.

It's no secret that ISIS terrorists have destroyed Christian churches, desecrated ancient holy shrines, and dug up Christian graves and smashed their tombstones.

It's no secret that bishops, priests, and other clerical leaders are being abducted and murdered.

It's no secret that ISIS terrorists capture Yazidi women and girls and lock them into a life of sexual slavery and repeated rape. Many of these victims choose to take their own lives, seeing suicide as their only escape amid hopelessness and unimaginable suffering.

It's no secret that thousands of Christians and other religious minorities have been systematically raped, tortured, beheaded, crucified, burned alive, and buried in mass graves, if buried at all.

And it's no secret that the word we should use to describe the whole of these atrocities-the word we must use-is genocide.

The plain reality is that the Islamic State is seeking to eradicate Christians, Yazidis, Sabean-Mandeans Jews, and other religious groups it sees as apostates and infidels. This is part of its fanatical focus on establishing a Caliphate first in the Middle East and eventually across the rest of the world.

Christians, Yazidis, and others who have managed to find refuge have seen ISIS's genocidal campaign first hand. They can list name after name of missing family members-wives and daughters kidnapped into sexual slavery, sons and brothers killed, others spirited away to unknown fates.

‎These victims know the truth of the genocide occurring in Syria and Iraq. And now that truth is recognized officially by the United States of America.

There were those who wavered on whether this was genocide. They feared that uttering this truth would compel U.S. action to stop the genocide. My answer is: And? A mortal enemy, who wishes to commit mass terrorist atrocities against the United States, is also systematically persecuting and exterminating Christians and other religious minorities. When will our national-security interests ever overlap more perfectly with our moral sentiment than now? We can and we ought to stop ISIS dead-stop them before they kill more Americans and stop them before they eliminate Christian communities that have existed since the days of Christ himself.

Still others argued that while a genocide may have been occurring, recognizing it would somehow play into ISIS's propaganda that it's fighting a righteous jihad against a supposed new Crusade. I never understood this argument. To stay silent in the face of ISIS's propaganda is to accommodate that propaganda. To cede any power to ISIS's narrative is to bend the light of truth to the hard darkness of a lie. Standing up for the practitioners of religions born in the Middle East and calling the region home since the beginning of recorded history is not a new Crusade. It's a defense of world order, demonstrated through the periods of peaceful coexistence of the many religions in those ancient lands-an existence that is today threatened with extinction by ISIS's barbarism.

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Today, the United States rightly recognized this genocide. But we must also take action to relieve it. ISIS is a threat to the United States, our allies, and to the stability of the whole Middle East. Destroying ISIS and stopping its malignant expansion is a core national security interest of the United States. But stopping ISIS and the depraved ideology that enables it is also a pursuit that aligns with our highest ideals and humanitarian principles.

I and many of my colleagues in the Senate have deep disagreements with the President's policy to defeat ISIS. For two years, his policy of confusion, delay, and paralysis has failed to stop these terrorists. An entirely new approach that has the United States in the lead of a determined coalition is badly needed.

But it's not only President Obama's strategic approach that's ill-considered. His policy on Syrian refugee resettlement is as well. Because the United States unwisely relies on the United Nations for all referrals of refugees seeking resettlement, Christians and other religious minorities fleeing persecution are the victims of unintentional discrimination when seeking asylum and protection in the United States.

Last year, of the 1,790 Syrian refugees resettled in the United States, only 41 were religious minorities. Of that 41, 29 were Christian. That means that while 13 percent of Syria's pre-war population consisted of religious minorities, only 2.3 percent of the refugees that make it to the U.S. are religious minorities.

Without doubt, Syrians of all confessions are being victimized by this savage war and are facing unimaginable suffering. But only Christians and other religious minorities are the deliberate targets of systematic persecution and genocide. Their ancient communities are at risk of extermination. Their ancestral homes and religious sites are being erased from the Middle Eastern map. Christians and other minorities should not be shut out from the small number of refugees who find shelter in the United States. We ought to help ensure that these faith communities survive.

But why are Christians underrepresented among refugees? There are a number of factors. Perhaps chief among them is that the United States, for all intents and purposes, relies exclusively on the U.N. refugee agency to identify candidates for resettlement. According to the State Department, less than one percent of the thousands of Syrian refugees referred by the U.N. to the United States are religious minorities.

Let me stress that this underrepresentation is not the result of intentional discrimination. The U.N. does praiseworthy and hard work in relieving the suffering of refugees around the world and, as a result, improving the security and stability of nations in and near conflict and disaster zones.

But it's well-established that many religious minorities in Syria are very reluctant to register as refugees with the United Nations because they fear facing even more persecution. The U.N. itself has reported that minority communities "fear that registration might bring retribution from other refugees" in camps or other areas in which they have sought safe haven. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has reported that Christians refrain from registering with the U.N. because they fear being marked for revenge by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad should he remain in power in Syria.

Whether these fears are well-founded or not, the reality is they exist and they deter Christians from seeking U.N. protection. While the U.N. has sought to educate minority populations on the safety of the registration system, the fact remains that only one percent of the millions of Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. are non-Muslim.

The United States ought not depend solely on the U.N. for refugee resettlement referrals. If we are to do our part in saving ancient faith communities from genocide, we must find alternate ways to identify persecuted people to whom we can grant safe haven.

Today, I am introducing legislation to create that alternate way. The Religious Persecution Relief Act would grant religious minorities fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS and other groups in Syria priority status so they can apply directly to the U.S. resettlement program without going through the U.N. And it will set aside 10,000 resettlement slots annually that must be devoted to religious minorities.

The priority status-known as "P-2 status"-will allow religious minorities to skip the U.N. referral process and it will fast-track the process by which we confirm that they are the targets of persecution and genocide.

And to answer in advance a most urgent and understandable question, those who apply for P-2 status will be subject to the same security vetting process as all other refugee applicants. And it is my strong position that the United States must work with known religious leaders in the region and pursue other proven vetting methods to ensure that those who enter this country are not threats to the security of the American people.

Extending a hand to help persecuted people of faith in this manner is not a new idea. In 1989, the late Senator from New Jersey, Frank Lautenberg, crafted what has been called the Lautenberg Amendment, which granted P-2 priority status to Soviet Jewry, Vietnamese nationals, and others minorities seeking refuge. In 2004, the late Senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter, expanded the Lautenberg Amendment to cover religious minorities fleeing the oppression of the ayatollahs in Iran. And in 2007, the late Senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy, passed a bill that granted priority status to certain Iraqi religious minority members.

The bill I'm introducing today follows this bipartisan tradition of the Senate and our country. Among the first Americans were pilgrims from religious persecution in the Old World. That's one reason we have a long tradition of defending religious minorities, here and around the world.

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In the coming weeks, I will discuss this bill with my fellow Senators. And my hope is that it will pass, and pass soon. Because each day will bring another Christian child who is tortured. Another minister crucified. And another girl raped. Faith communities in the Middle East are slowly being strangled out of existence.

We are coming upon Easter: the day of Christ's resurrection. The message of Easter is one for all of humanity: that in times of pains and suffering, trial and tribulation, there can ultimately be salvation, there can ultimately be triumph over death.

I try to keep this message in mind, particularly amidst these times when religious conflict and oppression do not seem to be waning, but waxing. Today, Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world. Other religions are not far behind in the scope and depth of the oppression they face.

While the United States cannot save all those who are suffering from religious persecution, when the persecutors are rabid terrorists who want to kill Americans and we have the means not only to defeat those terrorists, but also to protect the innocent, we ought to act. And we certainly have an obligation to stop the discrimination in our own refugee process that unfairly blocks Christians and other religious minorities from seeking safety in the United States.