Christians press U.S. to call ISIL violence ‘genocide’

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The State Department should use the label for Christians as well as Yazidis, church leaders say.
By Nahal Toosi
Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border in northern Iraq, on Aug. 13, 2014. | Getty
Christian leaders are pressing the Obama administration to declare that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians, a designation that could increase pressure on the president to take action to protect victims of the terrorist group.

The State Department has spent months debating whether to label the Islamic State’s murderous rampage against members of a different religious minority, the Yazidis, a “genocide,” a designation that carries legal, political and historical implications and which the U.S. has rarely invoked. But now, with a decision expected soon, the administration faces growing pressure to include Iraqi and Syrian Christians under that same heavy label.

GOP Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a 2016 presidential candidate, has raised the plight of the Christians on the campaign trail, saying they are facing a genocide at the hands of the Islamic State and should get preference in being admitted to the United States.

Around 30 Christian and other leaders, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry last week to request a meeting to make the case that Christians in territory controlled by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, face genocide. One signatory, Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, testified on the issue Wednesday before a House panel.

The letter writers said they agree wholeheartedly that the Yazidis, who have faced everything from death to enslavement at the hands of the Islamic State, are victims of genocide. Their argument, however, is that the suffering of Christians rises to the same level, surpassing other labels the U.S. has tended to use such as “ethnic cleansing” or “crimes against humanity.”

“The world recoiled when it learned that ISIS jihadis had stamped Christian homes in Mosul (a city in Iraq) with the red letter ‘N’ for ‘Nazarene’ in summer 2014, but the elimination of Christians in other towns and cities in Iraq and Syria began long beforehand,” the letter states. “ISIS’ genocidal campaign against Christians continues today, with hundreds of Christians remaining in ISIS captivity, and with summary executions, including by beheadings and crucifixions, occurring as recently as only a few months ago.”

The call to designate Christians victims of genocide will likely draw plenty of sympathy in Congress. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House, led by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), introduced a resolution in September calling the attacks on Christians and other groups in Islamic State-controlled territory a genocide. The resolution has more than 150 co-sponsors.

While labels such as “ethnic cleansing” and “crimes against humanity” all carry significant weight, “genocide” occupies a special status in the international lexicon. Because of various international treaties that America is party to, determining that a mass killing is a “genocide” could place a legal obligation on the U.S. to intervene. Members of groups deemed at risk for genocide may have an easier time being recognized as refugees, and in general the term ups the pressure on the international community to respond and the perpetrator to stop his actions. Legal phrases such as “specific intent” to destroy a group “in whole or in part” are often parsed carefully to see if a particular mass murder falls under the “genocide” label.

The State Department has been tight-lipped about the process involved in the genocide determination, and officials on Wednesday gave no time-frame for when a decision will come down or what it will be. However, past reports have indicated that the administration is leaning toward declaring that the Yazidis face genocide, while reserving judgment on the status of Christians as well as other religious minorities targeted by the ISIL.

Their decision could factor in the findings of a report by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum that detailed atrocities facing religious minorities under the rule of the ISIL, whose jihadists follow an extreme form of Sunni Islam.

The report focused in particular on events in Ninewa province in Iraq between June and August 2014, and it determined that the Islamic State had “perpetrated crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes against Christian, Yazidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i people” in that area. In addition, the report stated: “We believe IS has been and is perpetrating genocide against the Yazidi people,” whose 4,000-year old faith incorporates elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The U.S. has a record of trying to avoid using the term genocide, in part, some critics believe, so it does not find itself pressured to intervene in what are often fast-moving, dangerous circumstances. Determinations of genocide by the U.S. have at times come years after the killings.

Even as the Rwandan genocide was happening in 1994, U.S. officials avoided the term, out of fear by government lawyers that — according to a then-secret memo — it would commit the Clinton administration to “actually ‘do something.'” Some 800,000 people died that year in the African country, most of them members of the Tutsi ethnic minority killed by the Hutu majority.

And when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell called the relentless killings in the Darfur region of Sudan a genocide in 2004, it drew plaudits and concern from the international community. It was later revealed that Powell’s aides had determined that using the term “would have no immediate legal—as opposed to moral, political or policy—consequences for the United States.”

Because the U.S. is leading a coalition aimed at fighting the Islamic State, and because the U.S. and its allies already have in the past intervened to save the Yazidis and others from direct onslaught — most notably during the siege of Mt. Sinjar — a designation of genocide is unlikely to see any additional U.S. military action as a direct result, although for historical and moral reasons, it would strike a chord.

Some could argue that the case of Christians in Iraq and Syria does not fall under the definition of genocide because Christians are given options under which they can stay alive. They can convert to Islam, for example, or pay a special tax to the Islamic State, to be allowed to stay under the terrorist group’s rule. Unlike the Yazidis, who are often perceived by their enemies as devil-worshippers, Christians and Jews are considered “People of the Book” (the Quran) and thus subject to certain protections under Islamic law.

But the religious leaders who wrote to Kerry insist that in reality, Christians are nowhere near protected.

“We have extensive files supporting a finding that ISIS’ treatment of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis and other vulnerable minorities, meets this definition (of genocide),” the letter states. “They include evidence of ISIS assassinations of Church leaders; mass murders; torture; kidnapping for ransom in the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria; its sexual enslavement and systematic rape of Christian girls and women; its practices of forcible conversions to Islam; its destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries, and Christian artifacts; and its theft of lands and wealth from Christian clergy and laity alike. We will also present ISIS’ own, public statements taking ‘credit’ for mass murder of Christians, and expressing its intent to eliminate Christian communities from its ‘Islamic State.'”
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