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San Diego Chaldean Leader Pushes For Iraq, Syria Refugee Bill

By Susan Murphy

Mark Arabo, an advocate for Iraqi Christians, speak in his Mission Valley office about an asylum bill introduced in Congress, March 26, 2015.

"My message to Congress is clear," said Mark Arabo, advocate for Iraqi Christians. "If they do not pass this bill, then they’re sentencing my people to death."

Two San Diego County congressmen introduced a bill in Congress this week to make it easier for religious minorities in Iraq and Syria to apply for U.S. refugee status.

The bipartisan bill, Protecting Religious Minorities Persecuted by ISIS Act, would allow those whose lives are threatened by the self-proclaimed Islamic State terror group to apply directly to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program with a stamp of priority. It was introduced by Reps. Duncan Hunter and Juan Vargas.

“The barbaric ideology of ISIS poses serious threats to the lives of Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, and other groups in the region," Vargas, D-San Diego, said in a statement. "Religious freedom is a founding principle of our nation, and as leaders of the most revered democracy in the world, we must protect people who fear for their lives while exercising this most basic right.”

Hunter, R-Alpine, said in a statement: “ISIS is threatening not only the stability of an entire region, but also the lives and well-being of innocent people for their religious beliefs and associations.”

Mark Arabo, a spokesman for the Iraqi Chaldean community in San Diego County and across the nation, worked with Vargas and Hunter on the bill.

"Right now the people in Iraq and Syria are not able to get Visas," Arabo said in an interview Thursday. "They’re not able to process out of the country because it’s too dangerous. This bill would reinstate and expedite the processing of these visas."

Arabo said 12,500 civilians in Iraq and Syria have been killed over the past year as ISIS seized large swaths of land.

Many of those being persecuted by ISIS in Iraq have close ties to San Diego’s Chaldean community, he said.

"A lot of San Diego Chaldeans have family members in Iraq, and they’re frightened," Arabo said. "A lot of them have lost connection, have lost communication, they fear the worst."

Arabo plans to visit Washington, D.C., in mid-April to lobby Congress and the White House on the measure.

"My message to Congress is clear," Arabo said. "If they do not pass this bill, then they’re sentencing my people to death."

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