WASHINGTON — Amid growing alarm over the Islamic State’s (IS) declared campaign to eradicate Christianity from territory under its control, Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, implored the U.S. State Department to “publicly acknowledge that genocide is taking place against the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria.”
Anderson’s comprehensive testimony before a Dec. 9 House subcommittee hearing on the “Humanitarian Imperative: Assisting Victims of ISIS Violence” marked an intensive ecumenical effort to lobby the Obama administration to explicitly designate Christians, along with Yazidis, as victims of genocide.
The Yazidis’ ancient faith incorporates elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Islamic State militants have assailed them as “devil worshippers” and have killed thousands of men and taken women and girls as sex slaves.
The congressional hearing took place as the White House stepped up its military and political response to terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako called for the introduction of ground troops to defeat IS and protect Christians. The inclusion of Christians in the formal declaration would raise awareness of their plight and potentially increase pressure on the U.S. government to come to their defense.
“A declaration of genocide can be interpreted as requiring action to ‘protect’ and ‘punish’ under Article 1 of the 1948 Convention on Genocide, but I doubt this administration would read it that way,” Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, told the Register. “My guess is that any declaration of genocide by any government — even this one — would bring great moral pressure on them to take more action than they are currently taking.”
Nina Shea, who leads the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, emphasized the vital importance of the genocide designation.
“Without an acknowledgement that they face genocide, Iraqi and Syrian Christians would have an even steeper uphill battle to obtain such things as refugee status and priority resettlement as a ‘vulnerable minority’ in the West,” Shea told the Register.
The designation of Christians as victims of genocide would also facilitate “reparations for property that has been taken by others, legal recognition of claims to ancestral Christian lands and to property and restitution for great personal losses,” she said.
Shea, Anderson and other religious leaders and advocates are pressing their case now because the White House is expected to issue a formal statement that will identify Yazidis as the target of the Islamic State’s genocidal policies. Reportedly, other vulnerable religious minorities will not be so designated, despite the fact that they have suffered crucifixions, beheadings, sexual enslavement and forced exile at the hands of IS, also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh.
“The United States is rightly viewed as the world’s leading defender of vulnerable minorities, and it is critically important that the State Department consider the best available evidence before issuing a statement that would exclude Christians,” said Anderson in his testimony.
Similar arguments were presented in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry that was signed by an array of religious leaders, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, Anderson and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
The Genocide Convention defines this action as killing and certain other acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and the letter signed by the ecumenical group argued that the Islamic State’s campaign against Christians met that standard.
The letter cited “evidence of IS assassinations of Church leaders; mass murders; torture; kidnapping for ransom in the Christian communities of Iraq and Syria; its sexual enslavement and systematic rape of Christian girls and women; its practices of forcible conversions to Islam; its destruction of churches, monasteries, cemeteries and Christian artifacts; and its theft of lands and wealth from Christian clergy and laity alike.”
Further, the ecumenical group pointed to “IS’ own, public statements taking ‘credit’ for mass murder of Christians and expressing its intent to eliminate Christian communities from its ‘Islamic State.’”
Yazidis Specifically Victimized
Thus far, the State Department has not responded to press inquiries regarding the possible inclusion of Christians in a declaration of genocide. But media reports speculate that the government’s policy will reflect the findings of a recent fact-finding mission to Iraq’s Nineveh province sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A report issued by the Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjoot Center for the Prevention of Genocide examined the Islamic State’s campaign of terror in the Nineveh province between June and August 2014 and concluded that only the Yazidis were victims of genocide.
“Under IS’ ideology, adherents of religions considered infidel or apostate — including Yazidis — are to be converted or killed, and members of other religions — such as Christians — are to be subjected to expulsion, extortion or forced conversion,” read the report published by the Simon-Skjoot Center.
Though other Church and human-rights groups have confirmed the killing and sexual assault of Iraqi Christians, including those who refused to convert to Islam, the report argued that IS’ treatment of this religious group did not meet the legal standard of genocide.
“Some could argue that the case of Christians in Iraq and Syria does not fall under the definition of genocide because Christians are given options under which they can stay alive,” stated a Dec. 9 news analysis at Politico, which noted that Christians could convert to Islam or pay a fine to IS that would permit them to remain in territory under its control.
“Unlike the Yazidis, who are often perceived by their enemies as devil worshippers, Christians and Jews are considered ‘People of the Book’ (the Quran) and thus subject to certain protections under Islamic law.”
‘A Genocidal Act’
The argument that Christians are not subject to an Islamic State-led campaign of genocide because they can protect their lives by converting to Islam and paying a fine to IS authorities was repudiated by Stephen Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Forced conversions, said Colecchi, are not an “option” for committed Christians, and thus offer no genuine protection.
“As a person of faith, I don’t have an option to deny my Lord. That is a violation of my fundamental human dignity,” Colecchi told the Register.
“IS has declared publicly their intention to remove the Christian presence [from the region]. That is a genocidal act.”
He confirmed that the U.S. Catholic bishops have followed Pope Francis’ own condemnation of IS’ campaign of genocide against religious minorities and lobbied Congress and the State Department to include Christians as designated victims of genocide.
In a statement issued just days after the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., the president of the bishops’ conference, described IS’ effort to remove all traces of Christianity in territory under its control as “nothing short of genocide.”
That statement, said Colecchi, has been shared with the State Department to make sure it reaches the highest levels of the U.S. government.
The bishops’ conference has also called on U.S. lawmakers to adopt House Concurrent Resolution 75, which specifically condemns the ongoing “genocide” against Christians and other vulnerable minorities in Iraq and Syria. It was introduced by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., and Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and has drawn 150 co-sponsors.
Carl Anderson offered his own endorsement of the congressional resolution during his testimony before the House subcommittee.
He further noted that the Knights of Columbus has raised more than $5 million to help religious minorities under threat and displaced from their homes by IS. And the Knights have established a donation and news web portal at Christiansatrisk.org, where the stories of persecuted Christians are shared with a broader audience.
Numerous Examples of Brutality
In his congressional testimony, Anderson offered numerous examples of executions, kidnappings and other brutal actions against Christians.
“Since 2003, so many thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians have been held hostage for ransom that Christians there are sometimes referred to as ‘currency,’ and such ransoms are cited by experts as a major source of ISIS’ revenues,” he said.
Anderson told the story of Chaldean priest Douglas Bazi, a kidnapping victim who was later featured in a television commercial sponsored by the Knights that aired on Fox.
Today, Father Bazi manages the Mar Elia camp for 100 displaced Christian families in Erbil, Iraq.
“Like many others, Father Bazi was severely tortured” while in captivity, said Anderson. He recalled the priest’s plea that Christians in the West become a powerful voice for vulnerable religious minorities in the Middle East.
“Be our voice. I will not be surprised if they are going to destroy us, but I will be disappointed if no one will tell our stories,” Father Bazi told Anderson. “I will ask you here: Pray for my people, help my people, and save my people. And I believe you can.”
Mindful of the enormous suffering endured by the region’s Christians, Anderson also highlighted problems at refugee camps for Syrians sponsored by the United Nations High Command for Refugees, noting that Christians fear they will be attacked at the camps and so seek shelter in churches and private homes. But Washington relies on the UNHCR to register refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S., and Anderson argued that most Christians were thus effectively excluded from the application process
These unresolved problems, combined with both Washington’s failure to contain IS aggression and the unconfirmed press reports that only Yazidis will be designated as victims of genocide, have led some Church leaders to conclude that President Barack Obama has turned his back on persecuted Christians.
‘Refuses to Recognize Their Plight’
“The U.S. government should not turn a blind eye to the genocidal atrocities,” Chaldean Bishop Frank Kalabat of Detroit argued in his testimony before the Dec. 9 congressional hearing. “The Obama administration again refuses to recognize their plight. I say: Shame on you.”
Georgetown’s Farr aired similar concerns. Further, while he wants Syrian Christians to be free to apply for resettlement in the U.S., he also hopes that Washington and its allies will develop a plan for Christians’ long-term protection in the region.
“My own view is that the United States should be leading the effort to establish a Nineveh Plain protected zone for Christians and other minorities willing to live in peace — providing the security and other support that will be needed,” Farr told the Register.
But he was skeptical about Obama’s likely next steps.
“If the Obama administration issues a declaration of genocide that excludes the Christians, it will eliminate any shred of credibility that remains concerning this administration's competence or goodwill,” he argued.
“In fact, it will suggest animus toward this group, whose fate the president has shamefully ignored. You don’t have to be a Christian to see that.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.