raqi-Americans applaud genocide label by U.S. on ISIS

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Niraj Warikoo, Detroit Free Press
State Department official who advises on religious freedom is to visit metro Detroit on Friday to meet with Iraqi-American Christians, the day after the U.S. labels ISIS actions as genocide
(Photo: Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute)

Iraqi-Americans applauded the Obama administration’s announcement Thursday that what ISIS has done is genocide, hoping it will be the start of serious action to defeat the militant group and save Iraq’s minorities.

Today, they plan to meet in Sterling Heights and West Bloomfield with the State Department official in charge of religious freedom issues who’s visiting metro Detroit to discuss the plight of Iraqi groups persecuted by ISIS.

After years of lobbying by Iraqi-American Christians and others, Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday: “Daesh (acronym for ISIS) is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”

“The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians, Yezidis because they are Yezidis, Shia because they are Shia,” Kerry said. “This is the message it conveys to children under its control. Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology. ”

The designation on Thursday was not accompanied by any policy changes, and it’s unclear how it may affect future U.S. actions, but supporters of it hope it can bring attention that could lead to more aggressive measures.

Iraqi Christians have faced increased persecution since the Iraq war began in 2003, as religious extremists gained power and sought to drive them out. They’ve been patiently waiting for the U.S. to drive out and defeat ISIS. Since 2003, the number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted from 1.4 million to 200,000, said Auday Arabo, a West Bloomfield attorney who’s spokesman for the Chaldean Church for the eastern half of the U.S.

“We’re very thankful that the administration used that designation” of genocide, Arabo said. “We only wish it had been done earlier. … Hopefully, this will make more people aware of the atrocities.”

Metro Detroit’s biggest immigrant population is from Iraq, a sizable percentage of them Christians, known as Chaldeans, Assyrians or Syriacs. Since ISIS came to power in Iraq two years ago, they’ve been pushing the U.S. government to label their actions as genocide, a label the U.S. has not used since 2004, when they applied it to actions in Darfur, Sudan, by the Sudanese government. U.S. officials reportedly were reluctant initially to use the word “genocide” because it could require various legal obligations to help the victims. On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously, 393-0, to label ISIS actions as genocide, putting pressure on the U.S. to act.

“We are jubilant” at the U.S. government’s genocide label, said Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield. “This is exactly what we’re looking for. This is going to change the whole ball game.”

Kassab has been lobbying U.S. officials for years about the plight of Iraqi Christians. Many Chaldeans (Iraqi Catholics) in metro Detroit such as Kassab have roots in Tel Keif in the Ninveveh Plain region near Mosul, an area of Iraq currently under the control of ISIS. Some in metro Detroit have had family members driven out or killed in Iraq, their ancestral homes and churches destroyed. They see themselves as the indigenous people of Iraq, stretching back thousands of years to the Babylonian civilization.

“Tel Keif is now a ghost town” cleansed of Christians, Kassab said. “ISIS is in the business of destruction of terror. They’re killing and destroying everything they see as un-Islamic by the sharia.”

On Friday, Kassab and other Iraqi-American leaders are to meet at his institute with Knox Thames, the U.S. State Department’s special adviser for religious minorities in the Middle East and south and central Asia. The meeting will include leaders with minority groups such as Iraqi Christians, Yezidis and Mandeans. Thames is also to visit the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights, where he will meet with Chaldean leaders and U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Michigan.

“We welcome this long-awaited declaration,” said Martin Manna, head of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce in metro Detroit. “I am hopeful it will lead to the protection of the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac and Yezidi communities in Iraq and Syria, and the much-needed aid that is lacking.”

Kassab and Manna said that the U.S. needs to do more to protect and give aid to Iraq’s minorities. They also said that Iraq’s government needs to ensure that non-Muslims are equally protected under the law and provide them safety.

Manna said they will propose to Thames that the U.S. help create safe passages for minorities in Nineveh Plain, pressure the Iraqi government to do more, create long-term housing, guarantee the rights of minorities under the Iraqi and Kurdish constitutions and create a safe zone for Christians in Iraq.

Kerry’s announcement also was welcomed by Iraqi-American Muslims in metro Detroit. In addition to Yezidis and Christians, Kerry’s genocide designation applied to Shias, which ISIS has targeted often, labeling them as apostates from Islam.

Kerry added that ISIS targets other groups as well, saying it is “responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities.”

Imam Husham Al-Husainty, head of the Karbalaa Islamic Educational Center in Dearborn, said he hopes that the designation can help lead to defeating ISIS and other terror groups in Iraq.

“We are thankful to God” that the U.S. made this genocide designation, Al-Husainy said. “This is a step towards humanity, to see officials concerned about human rights and justice.”

Imam Al-Husainy said that Shias have been the biggest victims of ISIS, in terms of numbers killed.

“We sacrificed so many of our people against ISIS,” said Al-Husainy, who is Shia and has family members in Iraq. “We are on the battlefield in Iraq. We expect the West to help support us.”

“I’m so thankful we are on the same side, fighting for God and truth. … We should unite to fight terrorism and evil.”

Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo