WASHINGTON – On December 11, President Donald Trump signed H.R. 390, the Iraq and Syria Genocide Relief and Accountability Act of 2018, in the Oval Office. The goal of the new law is to assist religious and ethnic groups targeted by ISIS for mass murder and genocide in the two countries mentioned. It also authorizes the US government to help bring organizers and perpetrators of these crimes to justice. Among the high-level dignitaries present, besides the president, were the vice president, various congressmen and senators, and religious leaders of the persecuted communities. Legate and Ecumenical Director of the Eastern Diocese of the Armenian Church of America Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, a leader in many American and international ecumenical organizations, was among the latter.
Archbishop Aykazian was the only religious leader invited who was based in the United States, as all the others were from the targeted region. Even American church organizations in general were not invited. When asked how he got involved in this, he replied, “I don’t really know. I think the White House knew that I have been very active in defending the rights of the Christian minorities and the suffering of refugees in the Middle East. I just received the invitation 3 days ago directly from the White House.” He said that there were 35 people present at the very beginning, but they only asked for some 7 or 10 people to go see the president.
It started at 11 o’clock, he related, when Vice President Michael Pence came to speak to them. Archbishop Aykazian was asked to do the invocation and open the meeting. He said, “For us, our challenge is to stand with these Christian communities in their time of trial, to speak up on their behalf, and to act to preserve the ancient Christian enclaves in the Middle East. Our objective is to ensure that the rights of religious groups will be preserved, that faith remains respected, and that people of faith remain free to perform their obligations without impediment.”
Vice President Pence declared that it has always been on the agenda of the administration to not forget the sufferings of the minorities of the Middle East. Mark Green, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development spoke, as did five or six others, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic fraternal benefit society which was an early supporter of the new law.
Afterwards, the guests had lunch together and continued their conversations, Aykazian said. Both Republicans and Democrats were present, as the law is sponsored by Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). Eshoo is of Assyrian background paternally and Armenian maternally.
At the photo opportunity with President Trump, Archbishop Aykazian had the chance to convey greetings from an Armenian friend of the former. In response, the president said that the Armenians are “intelligent people, hardworking people.” Archbishop Aykazian also had talks with various congressmen and officials on Armenian issues, including concerning Turkey.