AMMAN, Jordan — One year ago, the U.S. government declared Christians in Iraq and Syria — along with Yazidis and other religious groups — were victims of an ongoing genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State terrorist organization (ISIS). Advocates commemorating the March 17, 2016, declaration have hailed it as a critical first step, but say much more needs to be done.
Three days after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a unanimous resolution declaring “the atrocities perpetrated by [ISIS] against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria include war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry made a similar declaration on behalf of the federal government. He stated that the terror group “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”
“[ISIS] is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions — in what it says, what it believes and what it does,” he said.
In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based human-rights organization representing Middle-East Christians and other religious minorities, helped spearhead the fight to get the federal government to recognize that ISIS was carrying out genocide in Syria and Iraq.
Phillipe Nassif, executive director of In Defense of Christians, told the Register that Kerry’s genocide declaration made a “pretty big difference” in shedding light on the eradication of Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and other minority groups in the areas under ISIS’ control.
“It used a term that needed to be used to define what was happening to these people,” he said.
Having them recognized as genocide victims has helped build further political pressure to do more. Nassif said IDC is advocating for the establishment of safe zones in Iraq and an autonomous zone for them to have additional future security.
Many Christians and Yazidis have started to repopulate their villages liberated by the Iraqi army, but others are still afraid to return to villages occupied by Shiite militias, or Kurdish militias, which have their own competing agendas and interests in the region.
IDC is also advocating for the establishment of safe zones along Syria’s border with Jordan and Turkey, in order to relieve pressure on Lebanon, which is officially 40% Christian and has the only Christian head of state in the Middle East.
Nassif said it would be a disaster for Christians and the rest of the Middle East if Lebanon, a nation that already experienced a sectarian civil war, imploded due to the strain of having 2 million refugees amid a nation of 4 million citizens.
On the Ground
For Christians in Iraq and Syria, the genocide declaration has not greatly altered the facts on the ground. While the Iraqi army fights a duel to the death with ISIS in western Mosul, and the U.S. prepares to help Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters take back Raqqa, ISIS’ other capital, the genocide of Christians, Yazidis and other minority populations is still ongoing. Members of those populations who fled still have not returned, and thousands of Yazidi women, as well as many Christian women, are still held captive by ISIS as sex slaves.
Andrew Walther, vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, told the Register that Christian leaders in Iraq and Syria have told the Knights they are more encouraged that the U.S. will exert more positive efforts on their behalf.
The Knights have also been working closely with Catholic leaders in Syria and Iraq, announcing they raised and disbursed $2 million toward the general relief efforts of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate and the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil.
“They see some very promising signs with the new administration,” he said. The problem with the genocide declaration thus far, Walther said, is that the federal government during the Obama administration never followed up “with any meaningful action.”
Walther said that, as far as he is aware, the displaced Christian populations they work with have not received any kind of financial assistance from either the U.S. or the United Nations following the genocide designation. The main financial assistance for Christian victims of genocide, he said, comes from Christians in the U.S. and around the world who have generously chosen to support the victims, such as through the Knights’ ChristiansatRisk.org portal.
Calls to Action
Bishop Gregory Mansour, the Maronite Catholic bishop of Brooklyn, New York, and a human-rights champion for Middle-East Christians, told the Register that the genocide declaration is still as true today as it was last year. When he and other advocates for Middle-East Christians pushed the resolution a year ago, they wanted to see it followed up with action that would land those who support ISIS or fund its activities before a court of law, or become liable to severe economic penalties.
“We need to start prosecuting ISIS at every level,” he said. So far, that has not happened.
The Genocide Coalition, a partnership of organizations and advocates for Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria targeted by ISIS for genocide, has been urging President Trump’s administration to take actions that would “secure, stabilize and revitalize the ancestral homelands of indigenous religious minority communities” and to direct national security or law enforcement agencies to “use all available means to bring to justice both the perpetrators of this genocide and their accessories,” including “the material cooperators (collaborators, affiliates, financiers and facilitators) of ISIS, al-Qaida and their affiliates.”
Edward Clancy, director of outreach of Aid to the Church in Need USA, told the Register that ISIS will have achieved its goal of genocide if those groups do not go back to their homes. So far, the surveys from displaced Iraqi Christians show that 50% want to return to their homes on the Nineveh Plain; before the Iraqi army began its rollback of ISIS in northern Iraq, only 10% wanted to go back. But Clancy said that there will have to be “an intensive effort to help Christians rebuild.”
Clancy said Iraq needs its own Marshall Plan — the post-World War II economic rebuilding plan for Europe devised in part to prevent communism from taking hold in the population — and Syria will need it, as well, because the infrastructure is in chaos.
He said, “If all is said and done, and the Christians don’t go back, then ISIS won.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.