Pressure is mounting for the U.S. State Department to declare Christians as genocide victims at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS).
On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed a genocide resolution, becoming the latest body to call for a formal recognition of ISIS’ actions as genocide.
“ISIS commits mass murder, beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture, enslavement, and the kidnaping of children, among other atrocities,” stated Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.).
“So as ISIS destroys churches and other holy sites, they move closer towards eliminating certain communities,” he added. “ISIS is guilty of genocide and it is time we speak the truth about their atrocities. I hope the administration and the world will do the same, before it’s too late.”
An amended version of H. Con. Res. 75 – a bipartisan resolution labeling ISIS’ atrocities committed against “Christians, Yezidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities” as war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – passed unanimously through the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and will be put to a vote in Congress.
Under the omnibus bill passed in December, the State Department has until March 17 to speak on a declaration of genocide.
The debate over whether Christians should be included as genocide victims stems back to reports last fall that a genocide declaration by the State Department was imminent – but only Yazidis would be included as victims.
The reported omission was significant. “This has very serious consequences for the Christians, and there is ample evidence to show that they have suffered serious bodily harm, which is a standard in the genocide convention,” said Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
Christians, she told EWTN News, “were inflicted serious bodily harm with the intent of eradicating them,” another standard for genocide under the U.N. convention.
The United Nations’ definition of genocide, as laid out in the 1948 convention on genocide, is actions taken with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” The actions include murder, torture, birth prevention, and “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”
ISIS atrocities committed against Middle Eastern Christians and other religious minorities meet this definition, advocates insist, and the word has significance.
If the U.S. declared that genocide was taking place against these minorities, it would put further pressure on the United Nations Security Council to issue a similar declaration. That could bring the next step of trying the perpetrators in the International Criminal Court.
Additionally, a genocide designation is important because it creates a legal – and moral – requirement for further action, Shea explained. The action doesn’t necessarily have to be military in nature, but it can involve granting refugee status to genocide victims and increasing their humanitarian aid.
The State Department was reportedly basing its limited genocide designation off a Holocaust Museum report “Our Generation Is Gone: The Islamic State’s Targeting of Iraqi Minorities in Ninewa,” or the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq. The museum led a fact-finding mission to Iraq in September of 2015 to investigate reports of genocide.
The mission never went to the actual Nineveh Plain, Shea said, but rather went to Iraqi Kurdistan and interviewed survivors of the ISIS onslaught. The report was quite “limited,” Shea insisted, both in its “locale” and its “time frame.” It only focused on ISIS activity on the Nineveh Plain in Northern Iraq between June and August of 2014.
As a result, while the report recognized atrocities committed against various ethnic and religious minorities, it only declared that the Yazidis around Mount Sinjar were victims of ISIS genocide.
“The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) perpetrated crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes against Christian, Yezidi, Turkmen, Shabak, Sabaean-Mandaean, and Kaka’i people in Ninewa province between June and August 2014,” the report stated.
“We believe IS has been and is perpetrating genocide against the Yezidi people,” it added. “IS’s stated intent and patterns of violence against Shia Shabak and Shia Turkmen also raise concerns about the commission and risk of genocide against these groups and requires further investigation.”
Yet a growing consensus has emerged recognizing that genocide is being committed against Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities as well.
Both the European Union and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – a bipartisan federal commission that advises the State Department – have declared that genocide is taking place against these minorities.
Members of the International Association of Genocide Scholars signed an appeal to the U.S. Congress last fall saying that ISIS has committed genocide against Christians, Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Kurds, Yazidis, “and other religious groups.”
Pope Francis said in July that “a form of genocide is taking place” in the Middle East against Christians. Presidential candidates including Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have also said that genocide is occurring.
Secretary of State John Kerry himself acknowledged it might be taking place in August of 2014. “ISIL’s campaign of terror against the innocent, including Yezedi and Christian minorities, and its grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide,” he stated.
However, Kerry was more guarded in a Feb. 24 exchange with Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations hearing.
Pressed by Rep. Fortenberry to call the atrocities against Christians “genocide,” Secretary Kerry stopped short of doing so, instead saying, “I share just a huge sense of revulsion over these acts, obviously. None of us have ever seen anything like it in our lifetimes.”
“We are currently doing what I have to do, which is review very carefully the legal standards and precedents for whatever judgment is made,” he added, noting that atrocities are occurring “not just in Syria, but in other places.”
“There has been an increase, forced evacuation and displacement, which is equally disturbing, though it’s not they are killing them in that case, but it’s a removal and a cleansing, ethnically and religiously, which is deeply disturbing. So we are very much focused on this,” he said.
Yet the evidence for genocide against Christians – apart from atrocities committed against other Middle Eastern religious minorities – is overwhelming, advocates say.
Firstly, “there’s no evidence whatsoever of any Christian life left in the caliphate,” Shea said – no active churches, liturgies, or congregations.
Aside from the many Christian clergy killed and taken hostage by ISIS, there have been many atrocities documented including the ISIS crucifixion of 12 Christian missionaries in Syria, the kidnapping of 180 Assyrian Christians and the execution of three of them in Hasakah, and the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach in February of 2015.
Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria has testified that over 1,000 Christians there have been murdered or abducted by ISIS. There have been mass graves of Christians reported in Sadad by the group Aid to the Church in Need. YouTube videos show supposed ISIS fighters desecrating churches. Three Orthodox churches near Mount Sinjar in Iraq were demolished by ISIS and the whereabouts of their congregations are unknown, Shea says.
“It’s still a war zone. It’s still going on. And it’s astonishing to me, the amount we do know about, the names we have documented,” Shea said.
Plus, there is the “forced conversion element which is part of genocide,” she added, which is taking place in the ISIS caliphate. Christians in Mosul in 2014 were given three options by the ISIS invaders – convert to their strain of Islam, stay and pay a jizya tax, or leave.
It is the second option that Christians were supposedly given that set them apart from Yazidis, the Holocaust Museum report noted:
“IS specifically notes that its treatment of the Yazidis differs from its treatment of ahl al kitab, the ‘people of the book,’ Christians and Jews, who had the option of paying the jizya (tax) to avoid conversion or death.’ By refusing Yazidis any option to avoid death or forced conversion, IS demonstrates that its actions were calculated with the intent of destroying the community and thereby different from its attacks against other minorities, which were part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
However, the jizya option is a false option, said Alberto Fernandez, who ran the State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications until 2015.
The jizya tax was traditionally administered in Islamic society because Muslims paid a zakat for almsgiving, so the jizya was paid for non-Muslims as a contribution to the Islamic society. Fernandez wrote that the ISIS jizya tax “seems more a Salafi Caliphate publicity stunt than a careful recreation of jizya as practiced by the early Caliphs.”
What is the proof? “There is no evidence of one open church or monastery in ISIS-controlled territory or of any sort of normal life by any religious minority within its boundaries,” he said.
The ISIS atrocities are an “assault on human dignity and civilization itself,” Rep. Fortenberry told Secretary Kerry on Feb. 2
“They’ve taken the conditions for life, as well as life, away from Christians, Yazidis, and religious minorities,” he added. “I just urge you, plead with you – partner with us. There is a growing consensus that this is not only true and real, but I think again it sets the condition for whatever future settlement we have to have.”