Did Hillary Clinton Describe ISIS' Persecution of Christians as "Genocide"?

Pope Francis and Christian leaders in the Middle East and the U.S. have denounced the Islamic State's treatment of Christians  as "genocide." Yet in a Christmas Eve message that expressed his concern for Christians in the region, President Obama held back from defining ISIS' efforts to stamp out all vestiges of Christianity in territory under its control as "genocide."  

Now, the administration will face more pressure to change its stance, as Hillary Clinton signals her own position on a foreign policy issue that is steadily gaining traction.

During a Dec. 29 town hall meeting in Berlin, N.H., Clinton was asked to let voters know whether she would join Pope Francis and describe the terrorist organization's persecution of Christians "by its proper name: 'Genocide'."

"I will because now we have enough evidence," said the former U.S. Secretary of State, who noted that she has previously avoided using the term because of the legal weight it carries.

The remark was off the cuff, but it immediately provoked headlines. Commentators viewed it as an attempt to draw support from Christian voters, who have been frustrated by Obama's inaction. And advocates for persecuted Christians applauded Clinton's specific response to the question, making her accountable if she should win the White House.

The Genocide Convention defines this action as killing and certain other acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” and the letter signed by the ecumenical group argued that the Islamic State’s campaign against Christians met that standard.

“A declaration of genocide can be interpreted as requiring action to ‘protect’ and ‘punish’ under Article 1 of the 1948 Convention on Genocide,” Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, told me earlier this month. “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.”

The Washington Post's Michelle Boorstein underscored the significance of Clinton's brief remark in a Dec. 30 news analysis. Boorstein noted that some foreign policy experts in the Democratic party increasingly oppose attempts to define ISIS' actions targeting Christians as genocide because they reject any religious framework for the conflict unfolding in the Middle East. Rather, they "believe the framework should be more sociological, economic and political."

"Democrats [are] increasingly pushing back against anything that frames conflict as the inevitable 'clash of civilizations,'” Shibley Telhami, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, told Boorstein. 

“This is a world view that does not accept that violence and terrible behavior is rooted in principle in religion, but instead in other political, economic or social factors,” said Telhami.

If I understand Telhami correctly, he is providing context for the Obama administration's puzzling response to the persecution of Christians in Syria and Iraq.  And if his explanation is correct, some Democrats are confusing a reasonable position, which distinguishes between a religion and brutal actions committed in its name, with a morally indefensible position, which downplays the brutal actions because they don't fit into a favored theory of why conflicts happen. 

Many Democrats rightly reject this kind of flawed thinking,  and that is why a Congressional resolution to define ISIS's actions against religious minorities as "genocide” has drawn bipartisan support.  But in an era that is deeply skeptical of organized religion and its moral claims, it is also worth noting that “ideas [including religion]  have consequences,” and few conflicts can be explained in purely sociological terms. 

“The modern state does not comprehend how anyone can be guided by something other than itself," observed Richard M. Weaver, the author of Ideas Have Consequences.

Obama's Dec. 24 message expressed concern for Christians in the Middle East and blamed ISIS for their plight. But he offered no specific policy to protect victims of the terrorist organization's campaign of beheadings, rape and forced exile. 

Is Hillary challenging the White House's foreign policy? It would not be the first time. But her own legacy offers nothing concrete that will reassure concerned voters.

That said, some experts speculated that she took a stand on this issue because of the lessons learned during her husband's administration. In 1994, President Bill Clinton did not intervene to prevent the brutal ethnic bloodbath in Rwanda, and later expressed regret for his inaction.