WASHINGTON — Secretary of State John Kerry declared Thursday that Christians, Yezidis, Shia Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities are victims of ISIS genocide.

Secretary Kerry announced at a news conference, “In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.” Daesh is another name for the Islamic State (ISIS).

The announcement is groundbreaking because the term is rarely used to describe ongoing atrocities committed by a state or non-state actor. It is the “crime of crimes,” according to the United Nations, because it involves the intentional destruction, “in whole or in part,” of an entire people.

Thursday’s announcement came after reports from earlier in the week surfaced that the State Department was expected to miss the March 17 deadline for announcing whether or not it would declare genocide. Congress mandated the deadline in the omnibus spending bill passed in December.

Significantly, the move follows the European Parliament’s declaration of genocide issued in early February. Advocates for Middle-Eastern Christians say that the declarations by both the U.S. and the European Union could put further pressure on the United Nations Security Council to declare the atrocities as genocide and refer the matter to the International Criminal Court, where the perpetrators could be tried.

Thursday marked the first time the United States has declared a genocide is taking place since 2004 in Darfur.

Initially, there had been some question as to whether Christians should be included as genocide victims. A report last fall suggested that the State Department’s declaration would only include Yazidis, based on reports from the Middle East that were limited in both their timespan and geographical scope.  

The Knights of Columbus, along with the advocacy group In Defense of Christians, released a 300-page report last week documenting atrocities committed against Christians by the Islamic State. That report was sent to the State Department, which had requested it.

In the report were personal accounts of displacement, theft, murder of family members, torture, sexual slavery and numerous other acts of violence committed by ISIS against Christians in Iraq, Syria and North Africa.

Advocacy groups hailed the declaration as an international call to action to prevent further genocide against the minority groups.

“Today’s announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry is correct and truly historic,” stated Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, in response. “For one of the few times in our history, the United States has designated an ongoing situation as genocide, and the State Department is to be commended for having the courage to say so.”

The U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution Monday expressing “the sense of Congress” that Christians, Yezidis and other Middle-Eastern minorities are genocide victims. The Parliamentary Assembly Council of Europe and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom have also acknowledged ISIS’ actions as genocide.

“By joining its voice to that of the House of Representatives, the American people and the international community, the United States today makes clear to ISIS that its attempt to stamp out religious minorities must cease,” Anderson stated.

“(Secretary Kerry) used the word that has the moral authority to raise the international consciousness and compel the international community of responsible nations to act,” the group In Defense of Christians said in its response to the genocide label.  

“By proclaiming that they are victims of genocide, the United States has done a great justice to the victims of the atrocities committed by ISIS, including the over 1,100 Christians who have been killed because of their faith,” the statement continued. “Hearing the voice of the United States speak this truth will restore the hope in the hearts of those who are still fearing for their lives and struggling to survive in the Middle East.”

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., sponsor of the House resolution on genocide commuted by ISIS, also hailed the secretary’s declaration.

“I sincerely hope that the genocide designation will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence, and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands,” he stated.

“Christians, Yezidis and others remain an essential part of the Middle East’s rich tapestry of religious and ethnic diversity. They now have new cause for hope.”