Editor’s Note: This article includes explicit descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
NEW YORK CITY — The stories were graphic, brutal and raw.
One account told of a couple whose children had been captured by ISIS militants. When they answered their door one day, they found a plastic bag on their doorstep. It contained the body parts of their daughters and a video of them being raped and tortured.
Another recalled a Christian woman from Mosul who answered the door to find ISIS foreign fighters, demanding that she leave or pay a jizya tax.
She asked for a few seconds, her daughter being in the shower, but the fighters refused to give her the time. They put a torch to the house, burning and eventually killing her daughter.
The girl died in her mother’s arms, but her last words were “Forgive them.”
These were the stories that emerged from a conference on Christian persecution that took place in New York City on Thursday.
Several of the stories were recounted by Jacqueline Isaac, a human-rights attorney and vice president of the advocacy group Roads of Success.
Her mother, president of the group, had testified before British Parliament the previous week, after having returned from Homs, Syria. Isaac relayed many of her stories, noting both the savage and vicious acts being committed and the stories of heroism and forgiveness.
“See, in the midst of darkness, there is light, and it is that light that has us sitting here today, because when there is light, there is hope,” she said.
Isaac was one of the speakers at the #WeAreN2016 international congress on religious freedom, April 28-30 in New York City. It is the second annual conference held to bring attention and awareness to the plight of Christians and other persecuted religious minorities, particularly in the Middle East. The “N” stands for the Arabic letter “nun,” spray-painted mockingly onto the houses of Christians in Mosul, Iraq, by the Islamic State referring to them as “Nazarenes.”
On Thursday morning, the congress was held at the United Nations headquarters and sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N. It featured testimonies on the persecution of Christians from victims of ISIS, missionaries in Syria and other religious and civic leaders.
Speakers shared horrific descriptions of ISIS atrocities.
Fighting back tears, 15-year-old Samia Sleman told about her six months as an ISIS captive. Speaking through a translator, the Yazidi teenager said that her family was captured in August 2014. Her father, uncle and grandfather are all still in ISIS captivity.
Their captors separated the men and the women and took their possessions. For the thousands of women in captivity, they raped the girls as young as 7 years old and forced them to convert to Islam. Some of the older women were deemed unworthy to keep as sex slaves and killed.
“Why are these innocent kids and these innocent people suffering this much in that region?” Sleman asked.
“Why don’t we see any action being taken? Even though it has been over a year and a half now, we’ve seen horrible things happen to use minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians, in that region, and we don’t see the international community taking concrete actions against the Islamic State.”
Recent recognition that a genocide is taking place in the Middle East — by the European Union Parliament, the U.S. State Department and the British House of Commons — has given hope to the victims, both Isaac and Sleman said.
But more needs to be done.
The next step is for the United Nations Security Council to declare “genocide” and refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. A petition by the group CitizenGO asking the U.N. to declare genocide and take action to protect the religious freedom of minorities.
The word “genocide” carries deep significance, Isaac insisted. When she testified before the U.K. Parliament, she brought along a 16-year-old girl who had witnessed inexpressibly barbaric atrocities. The girl had seen her own father murdered before her own eyes and witnessed the repeated rape of a 9-year-old girl until she died, as well as a mother fed the ground-up remains of her own child by ISIS.
“Though the legal arguments were very important in that parliamentarian decision in the House of Commons,” Isaac said, “it is those stories that moved the House of Commons [to declare genocide].”
And when the body declared that genocide was taking place in Iraq and Syria, the girl cried, “Oh God, oh God, thank you God: You heard our cries,” saying it was “justice for our people” and their “honor and dignity returned,” Isaac said.
Afterward, she called a mother in Syria whose child had been murdered. “My son’s innocent bloodshed has not been ignored,” the mother responded to the House of Commons move.
“The first step, the first victory, is that healing process,” Isaac said, the proof that “the survivors know” others are supporting them.
Advocates delivered hundreds of thousands of signatures to the United Nations on Friday, calling on the body to declare that genocide is occurring against Christians and other religious minorities.
“We’re here at the United Nations headquarters to file more than 400,000 signatures from citizens from all over the world asking the Security Council of the United Nations to declare what’s happening right now with ISIS in Syria and Iraq a genocide,” Ignacio Arsuaga, president of the advocacy group CitizenGO, stated at a Friday press conference outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City.
The petition asked the U.N. to “take a step forward to protect Christians and other religious minorities that live there,” so that “religious freedom may prevail in that region of the world.” It was delivered to the office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.
Religious leaders like Nigerian Bishop Joseph Danlami Bagobiri and Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, joined representatives of CitizenGO outside the U.N.
Specifically, the petition asked the office of Ban Ki-moon to press the U.N. Security Council to declare genocide for Christians and other religious victims of ISIS and to enforce “mechanisms” to protect genocide victims and prosecute the perpetrators.
It also called for member nations to act “to stop the war in Syria” as well as help internally displaced persons in Iraq and Syria return to their homes. “Safe havens” for internally displaced persons should be created, as well as an “action plan to rescue kidnapped and enslaved Christian and Yazidi women and girls.”
Christians have left Iraq and Syria in droves in recent years and make up 80% of minority victims of religious persecution, the “Call to Action” said.
Christians, Yazidis and other minorities “are victims of the deliberate infliction of life conditions that are calculated to bring about their physical destruction by the so-called ‘ISIS/Daesh’: They are being murdered, beheaded, crucified, beaten, extorted, abducted and tortured,” the petition added.
In addition, women and children have been enslaved, women have been raped and trafficked, children have been “forcibly recruited,” and churches and communities have been destroyed.
Christians in Nigeria have also been targeted by the terror group Boko Haram. According to the group Open Doors, there were more than 4,000 Christians killed and almost 200 church attacks in Nigeria in 2015.
The U.S. State Department, the British House of Commons and the European Union Parliament have already declared that genocide is taking place in Iraq and Syria. Multiple U.N. advisory bodies have already stated that genocide may be taking place, the petition noted.
“So we are here to support our brothers and sisters, Christians and other believers that are suffering persecution, that are suffering killings, that are suffering discrimination in this part of the world, the Middle East,” Arsuaga announced at the press conference.
After the press conference, Archbishop Jeanbart explained to CNA why it is so important for the U.N. to take action on the issue.
“We are undergoing a real genocide,” he said of his diocese in Aleppo, “and we are afraid that they want to take us out of our life, but also of our country, of the place where we were born, where the Church was born.”
“There are two kinds of genocide, human genocide and Church genocide,” he said. Not only are people dying, but the Church itself is “disappearing” from Syria.
“The Church of the first Christians is now collapsing,” he said, noting that the first Syrian Christians were Jews from the Diaspora who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost and were among the 3,000 baptized by Peter and the Apostles.
“They went back to their cities, and they began Christian life there,” he continued, and they ministered to St. Paul when he converted to the faith. “That’s why it’s very important to keep this Church alive,” he said.