We must do more to protect religious minorities from ISIS

  • Written by:

Martin O’Malley, Detroit Free Press
DFP omalley iraqis (2)
(Photo: Niraj Warikoo/Detroit Free Press)
“Genocide” is not a word to be used lightly. But it is not hyperbole to say Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria face genocide at the hands of ISIS today.

In the face of unthinkable terrorism and bloodletting on the basis of religion and ethnicity alone, the U.S. must do more to protect the Middle East’s religious minorities from extremists committed to their annihilation.

The Middle East historically has been a place of remarkable religious diversity and tolerance. Many people are surprised to learn of the Palestinian Christian community in the West Bank or the Iranian Jewish community in Tehran. Syria and Iraq have been home to some of the most diverse faith communities in the region, including Chaldean Christians, Yazidis and Sabaean-Mandeans.

Mesopotamia’s rich religious diversity is in crisis. The birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is at risk of losing one of these three great pillars. We should have the courage to call ISIS’ barbaric acts — targeted specifically against Christians and other religious groups — what they are.

“Genocide” is not an overstatement. It is “acts committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” In March, the United Nations accused ISIS of committing acts of genocide against Iraq’s Yazidi community, whose faith is linked to Zoroastrianism. The UN reported that ISIS militants initiated a “clearly orchestrated” campaign “to destroy the Yazidi as a group.” Men and boys were rounded up and executed in mass graves. Women and girls were abducted and sold as sex slaves. ISIS fighters raped children as young as 6 years old.

Iraq’s Chaldean Christians did not escape this reign of terror. ISIS marked Christian homes in Iraq with red stamps for confiscation or destruction. Christians have been constant targets for abductions and beheadings. If not executed, the captured Christians are forced to either pay a tax for not being Muslim, or convert to ISIS’ distorted interpretation of Sunni Islam.

ISIS’ plan to destroy Christianity in the Middle East is more ambitious than simply wiping out the Christian population; it also aspires to erase any semblance that Christianity ever existed in the Middle East. Last September, ISIS bombed the 7th-Century Green Church in Tikrit, one of the region’s oldest churches. And when ISIS took over Mosul last June, it destroyed or occupied all of the city’s 45 Christian institutions, converting one of its largest churches into a stated “mosque of the mujahedeen.”

Recently, I discussed these issues with members of the Chaldean community here in the United States. We agreed that the extraordinary threat facing religious minorities in Iraq and Syria requires an extraordinary effort on our part to protect them. The complexity and difficulty of the situation is no excuse for inaction. The Chaldean-American community has not only identified the locations of thousands of displaced Christians in Iraq, but has also organized thousands of sponsor families in the United States, ready to give them refuge if only they could get here.

Last year, the U.S. House took the positive step of passing a resolution on the status of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. The resolution specifically called on the State Department to “help secure safe havens for those claiming amnesty.” Unfortunately, we have fallen short of this goal here at home. Recently, I learned of the 20 Chaldean Christians who escaped ISIS in Iraq and have been detained in a San Diego immigration facility for five months. This is not the “safe haven” that Congress intended. Barring a public safety threat, these refugees should be released to their families and given due process as the government considers their asylum cases.

Protecting religious minorities against ISIS and facilitating the safe passage of those in the most precarious circumstances is a moral imperative. We can and must do more.

Martin O’Malley is a former governor of Maryland and a Democratic candidate for president of the United States.