Fearing the ‘G’ Word, the State Department Turns Its Back on Middle Eastern Christians

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By Nina Shea — February 16, 2016
Islamist extremists are waging a religious persecution so severe that, as Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill stated in their historic joint statement last week, “whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated.” Nowhere does this obtain more than in Iraq and Syria, where Christian communities, a groundswell of prominent voices is now acknowledging, face genocide. On February 4, the European Parliament, with near-unanimity and solid socialist support, passed a resolution declaring that ISIS “is committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis” and “other religious and ethnic minorities.”
Despite a foreign-policy mandate to speak out against religious persecution, the United States government has so far been silent on whether this epic religious cleansing of Christians,Yazidis, and other minorities from the heart of the Middle East ranks among the gravest of crimes.
With pressure mounting, the State Department in October leaked word that an official genocide designation would be forthcoming but made clear that State would recognize only a Yazidi genocide and not one against Christians. This prompted Congress to mandate that Secretary John Kerry make a determination by March 16 on the precise question of whether “persecution . . . of Christians and people of other religions in the Middle East by violent Islamic extremists . . . constitutes genocide.”
While other administrations have committed the sin of silence where genocide was concerned, none has officially signaled that it believes a brutally persecuted and displaced minority isnot suffering ongoing genocide. Yet that would be the effect of excluding the Christians from an official listing of genocide victims. Despite foreseeable harm this would cause these Christians, the administration appears on track to do just that.
Unnamed administration officials are proffering various arguments to justify omitting the Christians. All are flimsy, as seen below, and point to political motives.
After entering a Nineveh town in August 2014, ISIS militants confronted a Christian woman and demanded that she convert to Islam. When she refused, as the woman, now a refugee in Kurdistan, reported to the Hammurabi Human-Rights Organization in Iraq, they grabbed her infant and dashed him to the ground, killing him, and took away her husband.
This case is not included in the Holocaust Museum report that purports to cover all minorities and that State Department officials say the administration is relying on to make its determination that only the Yazidis face genocide. Nor are any others from the volumes of Christian cases documented by Hammurabi, Aid to the Church in Need, the Assyrian International News Agency, the Vatican’s Agenzia Fides, and other Christian sources.
Entitled “Our Generation Is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa,” and made available in October by the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, this report is not a thorough study of ISIS attacks on any minority but rather a narrowly constructed and superficial, 28-page “trip report.” It is based “largely on interviews” in Iraqi Kurdistan the prior month. The Museum’s fact finders, the report relates, “spoke with Yezidis, Shia Turkmen, and Shia Shabak whose loved ones had been killed or kidnapped” but apparently not with any similarly aggrieved Christians. Neither Christian leaders nor Christian documentation sources are cited in the report.
Its focus on events in Nineveh in summer 2014 seems designed especially for making a determination on Yazidi genocide, since this is where and when Yazidis were hit the hardest. I wholeheartedly agree that the Yazidis were and are victims of genocide. But Christians have also been under genocidal assault, and for a longer period, and in both Iraq and Syria. While the body count is not known, regional Christian leaders believe that many thousands of Christians have been killed in this. The Museum report contains no mention of any attacks against Christians in the Syrian part of the “caliphate.” On Iraq in the decade before 2014, it makes only passing reference to a handful of the innumerable mass murders of Christians by ISIS predecessors.
That several staff members of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center Center were previously with the Obama administration raises questions of whether this thin a report with such obvious limitations, released the same month as the department leak, was prepared in collaboration with the administration for a desired political outcome — namely, to include Yazidis while excluding Christians.
State officials say that the persecution of these Christians does not meet the “high bar” of the 1948 Genocide Convention because ISIS gave Christians a choice to avoid murder or deportation: They could convert to Islam or pay jizya, the Islamic tax. Forced conversion to Islam, of course, is itself evidence of religious genocide and is cited as such in the European Parliament resolution.
The jizya, in Islamic tradition, was to be paid for protection to live as Christians. The Museum report takes at face value ISIS’s insistence that it gives Christians the choice to pay jizya. In fact, there is no evidence of Christian life anywhere under the Islamic State – no reports of functioning churches, clergy, or congregations. This observation prompted Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who had until last year served as the State Department counterterrorism expert, to describe ISIS’s jizya claims as only a “caliphate publicity stunt.” Nineveh bishops who had direct contact with ISIS about this issue say that there was no serious opportunity for Christians to pay jizya to avoid worse consequences. Their report is supported by that of a Ninevah Christian, one of only three or so quoted in the entire Museum report, who says that his offer to pay jizya was rejected by ISIS in Mosul, forcing him to flee for his life. Reports of jizya to ISIS in Syria indicate that it was used to humiliate, discriminate against, and coerce individuals to apostatize and thereby contributed to genocide.
The State Department also insists that it lacks statements of intent from ISIS to violently eradicate the Christian minority “in whole or in part.” Under the Genocide Convention, such statements are required for the designation “genocide.”
But ISIS’s propaganda videos and magazine Dabiq offer many such statements. One such source trumpets the vow to “break your crosses and enslave your women,” underscored with a photo of the black flag instead of a cross atop St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Most Iraqi Christians are from the Chaldean and Syriac Catholic Churches, which are in unity with Rome, and so that statement can be interpreted literally as intent to destroy their communities as well as Christians generally.
The U.N. special adviser on the prevention of genocide lists patterns of action whose “cumulative effect” can evidence genocidal intent: “displacement,” “practices to complete the exclusion of targeted group from social/political life,” “atrocities,” “the destruction of or attacks on cultural and religious property and symbols . . . to annihilate the historic presence of the group,” etc. These Christians can check off the entire list.
Intent in the 1995 genocide case against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica was found in the political goals of the attacking Serbs. Without Srebrenica, the Serbs would see their sought-for state divided in two. Similarly, without Nineveh, which sits between the ISIS cities of Raqqa and Mosul and which was home to most Iraqi Christians and Yazidis, ISIS’s caliphate would be divided. As the Bosnia genocide court found, the elimination of the Muslims in Srebrenica “would have accomplished the goal of purifying the entire region of the Muslim population.” ISIS “purified” Nineveh of Christians and Yazidis.
In a December 4 letter to Secretary Kerry, 30 distinguished Christian leaders, religious-freedom advocates, and Near East scholars, from an array of churches and political backgrounds, aware of Department claims that it lacked evidence that the persecution of Christians in the region constitutes genocide, requested an opportunity to brief him “on the continuing religious genocide confronting both vulnerable Christian and Yazidi minorities of Iraq and Syria.” Their request for a meeting has not been granted.
It is difficult not to conclude that the reason for the administration’s reluctance to designate a Christian genocide is not for lack of evidence but for political reasons.
One possible obstacle is the Genocide Convention’s requirement that states act to “prevent and protect” the victims of genocide. During the Clinton administration, that proved a deterrent to declaring genocide in Rwanda and south Sudan. Ironically, the Obama administration’s national-security adviser and U.N. ambassador had been prominent critics of that silence.
According to The Economist, some fear that such a designation would compel the U.S. to commit to greater military involvement, and “by no means all Middle Eastern Christians are convinced that a storming intervention by Western powers is the right thing to save their communities.” In any event, the U.S. military is already active against ISIS.
On the record, David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador for international religious freedom, argues that a genocide designation would not make a difference in the U.S. response and, he thus implies, it is just not that important a concern: “We are doing what we would have done regardless of whether the designation had been made or not.”
But might there be another political reason at the root of the administration’s reluctance to recognize this Islamist genocide of Christians? Consider how it would parallel the reason that Holocaust scholars have found for President Roosevelt’s silence about the genocide of Jews in the Holocaust: “Nazi propaganda, which portrayed the Allied involvement in the war as being on behalf of ‘the Jews,’” led him instead to “refer in general to the aim of ending the mistreatment and murder of civilians under Axis rule.” That silence proved devastating for European Jews and came to be seen as a historic moral failing. From that experience emerged the solemn vow “Never again.” In the face of ISIS’s anti-“Crusader” propaganda, might the Obama administration be on the verge of making that same mistake, of silence, over the genocide of Christians?
Whether the official U.S. list of genocide victims includes or excludes Christians will affect the persecuted Christians enormously: in raising humanitarian aid, receiving asylum, overcoming de facto discrimination in U.N. resettlement programs, receiving restitution and reparation for seized land, and securing a place at the peace-negotiations table. It would also give these two-millennia-old Christian communities a sense of justice – something that still matters greatly to the families of Holocaust victims and that eludes the Armenian community.
— Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.