Ahead of Tuesday Senate Judiciary Hearing, American Jewish Community Pleas: Help Iraqi Christians

Posted on Fri, Jan 12, 2007 at 11:57 am

Parallels to Jewish History Seen

(Washington, D.C.)– In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, 36 prominent national and local Jewish organizations urged the United States to do more to help rescue Christians and other religious minorities fleeing Iraq.

The letter to Secretary Rice, which was spearheaded by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, asserts that “the American Jewish community owes its existence to the welcome which first generation Jewish-Americans received here after fleeing religious persecution. Our own history, combined with the fundamental Jewish principle of Piddyon Shevuyim (redemption of the captive) compels us to urge that the United States Refugee Program provide a similar welcome to religious minorities who have been fleeing Iraq.”

The letter also mentions that between 1948 and 1970, 150,000 Jews were forced to flee Iraq – a civilization where they had resided since biblical times. Only a few dozen remain today. With Iraqi Christians now making an exodus from Iraq, the parallel to the Jewish experience is clear.

“We are particularly empathetic to the plight of Iraqi Christians,” says Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. “We can’t ignore a parallel to our own history as striking as this.”

“We are truly grateful for this showing of support from HIAS and the Jewish community,” says Joseph T. Kassab, executive director of the Detroit-based Chaldean Federation of America. “Our historically close collaboration with the Jewish community has been very helpful for all involved, especially in situations like the one in Iraq, where HIAS and our other Jewish community partners have worked side-by-side with us to help all religious minorities.”

It is estimated that more than 1.2 million Iraqis have fled their country since 2003, the letter explains. “We would like to make a special plea for those refugees with family ties to the United States,” the letter states. “The Jewish community continues to have nightmares from more than 60 years ago, when many of our brothers and sisters in Europe were denied refuge and reunification with family members living in the United States.”

A hearing before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary on “The Plight of Iraqi Refugees” is scheduled for this Tuesday, Jan. 16, in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 226, at 2 p.m. A tentative witness list includes the Hon. Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the U.S. Department of State; “Sami,” a former translator for the U.S. military; “John,” a former truck driver (subcontractor) for the U.S. military; Captain Zachary J. Iscol, of the Foreign Military Training Unit, Marine Forces Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, executive director of the Steven Vincent Foundation; Ken Bacon, president of Refugees International; Michel Gabaudan, regional representative for the U.S. and Caribbean Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The names of “Sami” and “John” were changed to protect their identity.

The letter to Secretary Rice and its signatories follows this release.

January 12, 2007
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Madame Secretary:

The American Jewish community owes its existence to the welcome which first generation Jewish-Americans received in the United States after fleeing religious persecution. Our own history, combined with the fundamental Jewish principle of Piddyon Shevuyim (redemption of the captive), compels us to urge that the United States Refugee Program provide a similar welcome to religious minorities who have been fleeing Iraq.

Our community is particularly empathetic to the plight of Iraqi Christians, whose current exodus is reminiscent of the Jewish exodus from Iraq between 1948 and 1970, when approximately 150,000 Jews were forced to flee a civilization where they had resided since biblical times. Only a few dozen Jews remain in Iraq today. According to a report cited in the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2006, “after a series of church bombings and incidents of violence targeting Christians over the past two years, more than 200,000 non-Muslims left the country or fled to the North.”

Many have fled to neighboring countries which are not even signatories to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which protects asylum seekers from involuntary return to countries where they may face persecution.

Most Iraqi refugees in these countries cannot work legally to support themselves, and their children cannot attend school. Rather, their children are often forced to work in sweatshops where they are paid little – or nothing at all – as unscrupulous employers realize these refugees have no legal recourse to complain about unpaid wages. Iraqi refugees so fear deportation and attracting the attention of authorities that they avoid seeking emergency medical assistance, and do not contact the police when victimized by crime.

The international community is doing little to protect these asylum seekers. According to a January 2, 2007 article in the New York Times, last year the Syria office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which is mandated to protect Iraqi refugees, had to do so with less than one dollar per refugee. This year, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program – with a resettlement target of 70,000 refugees worldwide - plans to offer resettlement to only a few hundred Iraqis.

According to most estimates, more than 1.2 million Iraqis have fled their country since 2003. The United States must show greater leadership in protecting them; particularly those religious minorities – the Christians, the Mandaeans, and the Jews – who have no hope of imminent return, as well as those who fled after being threatened for having ties to the United States.

We urge the Administration to contribute significantly greater resources toward basic protection and services for Iraqi refugees within the region, schooling for their children, and resettlement to the United States for those whom a safe and voluntary return to Iraq is unlikely, including many Iraqi Christians, Mandaeans and Jews.

We would like to make a special plea for refugees with family ties to the United States. The Jewish community continues to have nightmares from more than 60 years ago, when many of our brothers and sisters in Europe were denied refuge and reunification with family members living in the United States. In the 50 years following the Holocaust, the Department of State seemed to have learned a lesson, and allowed far greater opportunities for Vietnamese, Soviet, Bosnian, and other refugees with family and other U.S. ties to apply for resettlement.

We ask that the Administration give similar consideration to those Iraqi refugees who have family members in the United States – or who are targeted for associating with the United States in Iraq – and permit them to apply directly to the United States for resettlement. The U.S. Refugee Program should no longer require refugees with such ties to the United States to obtain a resettlement “referral” from the UNHCR, which needs to direct its scarce resources toward tending to the protection and assistance needs of all Iraqi refugees in the region.

Thank you very much for your consideration

Sincerely,

National
American Jewish Committee
American Jewish Congress
Anti-Defamation League
B'nai B'rith International
Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
Jewish Council for Public Affairs
Jewish Labor Committee
National Council of Jewish Women
NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia
The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring
UCSJ: Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union
United Jewish Federation of San Diego County
Union for Reform Judaism
United Jewish Communities

Local and Regional
Action for Post-Soviet Jewry
Congregation Eilat of Mission Viejo, California
Fort Wayne Jewish Federation
HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia
HIAS Chicago
Jewish Child and Family Services of Chicago
Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Detroit
Jewish Community Relations Council of New York
Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey
Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford
Jewish Family Service of San Diego
Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT)
Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago
Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit
Jewish Social Policy Action Network
JFREJ- Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty
St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council
Syracuse Jewish Federation
UJA-Federation of New York
United Jewish Federation of San Diego County