WASHINGTON — When Father Douglas al Bazi, a Chaldean-Catholic priest from Iraq who has survived being kidnapped, shot in the leg and having his teeth knocked out by his captors with a hammer — all because of his Christian faith — spoke at a March 10 gathering at the National Press Club, he brought along a grisly prop — a shirt still stained with his own blood.
Yet the priest described himself as “lucky” and was more interested in talking about what is happening to his parishioners.
“I am here to tell you that my people feel forgotten and alone,” Father Bazi said. “I am here to tell Americans that the first step [to helping us] is to say that what is happening in the Middle East is genocide. I am begging the American people to recognize that it is genocide.”
Father Bazi was on hand for the unveiling of a 280-page report entitled “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East,” a joint project of the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians (IDC), a U.S.-based nonprofit that seeks to protect and preserve Christianity and a Christian culture in the Middle East. The report was conducted in response to a request from the U.S. Department of State, which has so far resisted designating the terror campaign against Christians by ISIS and its affiliates as genocide.
The State Department is facing a congressionally mandated March 17 deadline to make a determination as to whether the violence against Christians by the Islamic State group (ISIS) will be designated genocide. The report was submitted to the State Department on March 9.
An online petition by IDC and the Knights of Columbus urges Secretary of State John Kerry not to exclude Christians from a declaration of genocide.
The Knights also have a “40 Bucks for Lent” campaign to raise money to help Christians and other religious minorities suffering persecution in the Middle East.
In his opening remarks at the March 10 event, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus, recalled that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powell had documented the “long history of American inaction [with regard to genocide] in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia” in her 2002 book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Anderson said this history of turning a blind eye to genocide changed in 2004, when Secretary of State Colin Powell “became the first member of any United States administration to apply the label ‘genocide’ to an ongoing conflict.” Powell described the slaughter in Darfur, Somalia, as genocide.
“We are now on the cusp of another historic decision,” said Anderson. “Secretary of State Kerry has a similar opportunity to exercise moral leadership. The evidence contained in the report fully supports such action.
“History will record the recent atrocities committed against religious minorities in the Middle East as genocide. The question is whether America will be remembered as courageous, as in the case of our response to Darfur, or as something much less so, as in the case of our response to Rwanda.”
The report, which is available on the Knights of Columbus website, includes “witness statements” about atrocities and gives powerful evidence of the genocide of Middle-Eastern Christians at the hands of ISIS and affiliates of the Muslim terrorist organization.
It lists Christians known to have been murdered and churches that have been destroyed. According to the report, more than 1,130 Christians have been killed because they were Christians in Iraq from 2003 through June 2014.
Panelists who had recently visited the region described attempts to eliminate Christians and Christianity from the region.
“I went to Iraq three weeks ago and met a 3-year-old girl whom ISIS members had thrown against a wall. She can no longer talk. Where was her father? He had been murdered, as he was a Christian,” stated Juliana Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Christian and president of Iraqi Christian Relief Council.
“The report has unearthed many stories that the world has not heard,” IDC President Toufic Baaklini told the packed room. “Like the story of Christian women who have been forced into sexual slavery and listed on ISIS slave menus that put a price on ‘Christian or Yazidi’ women by age.”
Baaklini told the story of a woman named Claudia, who was captured and raped repeatedly after ISIS militants saw that she bore a tattoo of a cross. Another woman, Khalia, fought off ISIS militants as they attempted to rape captive girls and take a 9-year-old as a wife.
Panelist Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, said that some State Department officials erroneously “seem to believe that Christians within ISIS territory are being respected as people of ‘the Book.’”
“The secretary of state’s staff has contacted our organization and asked for a deal on wordsmithing, asking if it would be possible to designate ISIS’ actions as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘crimes against humanity’ rather than genocide,” Shea said. Such a determination would not carry the weight of a declaration of genocide, panelists emphasized.
Why the Genocide Designation Matters
While the genocide designation carries moral weight, another speaker at the press conference, Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch, which seeks to raise awareness of and stop genocide, said it is also important because it leads to action.
“Why does genocide — the G-word — matter? Why not simply call [the actions of] ISIS crimes against Christians and others ‘crimes against humanity’?” asked Stanton.
“The question I want to address is: What difference does it make if we call it genocide?” Stanton said. “What difference has it made historically? Why are we reluctant to use the word? I’ll tell you why. The word packs moral force, and it requires action.”
“Genocide doesn’t legally require a forceful response,” Stanton continued, “but morally it does.” He said that NATO took more forceful actions in Bosnia and Kosovo after the word “genocide” was used but said the U.S. did not intervene in Rwanda in part because the word “genocide” was not invoked.
“We discovered that as long as ‘ethnic cleansing’ was used, there was no forceful action to stop it,” said Stanton. “As soon as the situations were called genocide, forceful action resulted and ended the killing, except in Darfur, where a U.N. Commission of Inquiry rejected the genocide word.”
Stanton, a former State Department official, predicted that the U.S. State Department will soon officially recognize that ISIS engages in genocide against the Yazidis, but that it is “still debating” whether to use the word in connection with Middle-Eastern Christians. Some put forward the argument that Christians should be excluded from a declaration of genocide because, at least in theory, ISIS allows Christians to pay a jizya (a tax for Christians in Muslim lands) that is not permitted for other religious minorities.
“The theory is without foundation,” Anderson said. “The premise is false because ISIS cannot be trusted to apply jizya as historically understood. In Nineveh, demands for so-called jizya payments were a prelude to killings, kidnappings, rapes and the dispossession of the Christian population,” he said.
Fighting for Survival
One of the speakers at the National Press Club was Johnnie Moore, author of Defying ISIS, who recalled that, only last week, four members of the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, had been murdered in Yemen.
“Do you know why they did it?” Moore asked. “Because they knew that they can get away with it. Every jihadist in the Middle East believes that he can kill and torture and that they can do this without repercussions.”
An underlying idea of the press conference was that a designation of genocide could bring repercussions for killing Christians just a bit more likely and that without it Christianity may be eradicated in the region where it was first preached.
“I am witnessing the complete elimination of my nation, the Assyrian nation, which is over 7,000 years old, one of the first nations to convert to Christianity over 2,000 years ago, though the ministry of St. Thomas the Apostle,” said the Iraqi Christian Relief Council’s Taimoorazy. She fears that “my language, Aramaic, the language of Jesus, will be erased and no longer heard.”
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.