By Shalle’ McDonald
While Christians in Iraq and Syria face the threat of extinction at the hands of the Islamic State terror group, the U.S. State Department remains silent on the prospect of publicly designating the atrocities against Christians and other Mideast religious minorities as “genocide.”
According to a recent investigative piece by journalist Michael Isikoff for Yahoo! News, the State Department is in the midst of internal discussions to officially recognize the Yazidi people as genocide victims. But a lingering question remains: Will other religious minorities be included in the Obama administration’s designation?
“Scholars and experts are in consensus regarding the term ‘genocide’ being applied to both Christians and Yazidis alike…We need to ensure that all groups being persecuted by Islamic extremism are being treated equally under Article 2 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” Mark Arabo, an American spokesman for the Middle East’s Chaldean Catholic community and a human rights activist, told JNS.org.
In particular, human rights activists argue that Christians and other religious minorities should definitely be included in a genocide designation due to the ongoing systematic murder, rape, enslavement, forced conversion, and displacement of their communities in Iraq and Syria.
Villages that have had Christian presence for centuries have virtually become ghost towns as a majority of Mideast Christians have been forced to flee, convert, or be murdered. Even Christian families who chose the option of paying the jizya—an Islamic tax on non-Muslims—had to hand their wives over to the Islamic State terrorists.
Charles Hayes, an expert on religious freedom and vice president of the Newseum Institute in Washington, DC, told JNS.org that the designation of genocide for Christians is “long overdue.”
“If the State Department issues a genocide designation for Yazidis, that would be a step forward—but it is not enough. Invoking genocide is a serious action and should only be done when conditions are most dire. That’s where we are now in Iraq and Syria. It is time to call what is happening to Yazidis, Christians, and others what it is: genocide,” Hayes said.
David Brog, a board member of Christians United for Israel, called the persecution of Mideast Christians “the great human rights tragedy of our time.”
“This [Obama] administration has a disturbing record of downplaying and even ignoring this tragedy. This is just one more sign that the administration is deaf to the cries of our Christian brethren,” Brog told JNS.org.
The State Department’s reluctance to label Islamic State atrocities against Mideast Christians as genocide is evident by the department’s own statements.
A State Department source told JNS.org—without specifically mentioning Christians—that alongside the atrocities against the Yazidi people, Islamic State has victimized a “wide range” of communities in Iraq and Syria, but that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad regime is the actor most responsible for the mass murders of civilians in the region.
Obama administration officials told Yahoo! News that Islamic State attacks against Christians and other Middle East religious minorities may not warrant the genocide label because Islamic State may not have the intention to actually eradicate those minority populations. Asked specifically whether Christians and other religious minorities will be included in the genocide designation, a State Department official said, “At this time we ourselves have not made a formal finding of genocide. We are not going to comment on internal discussions.”
An Obama administration official further told JNS.org, “Our policy and objective is to degrade and defeat ISIL (Islamic State) and hold perpetrators accountable. The protection of members of groups under attack and the provision of humanitarian assistance to members of displaced groups are vitally important and will continue to be a key priority for the U.S. government. To that end, we will continue to support the victims of these atrocities, work with responsible governments and other international partners to hold those responsible for these crimes fully accountable, and strive to prevent the commission of such atrocities in the future.”
Yet Ambassador Anne Patterson, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Near East Bureau, hinted at a House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee hearing last month that a genocide designation might be in the works. Asked by U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) whether Islamic State’s atrocities are considered genocide, Patterson said she could not say yes or no, but that she believes “there will be some announcements on that very shortly.”
Earlier this year, Fortenberry introduced a bipartisan resolution denouncing the genocide against Christians as well as other ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.
“The international community must confront the scandalous silence about their plight. Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have every right to remain in their ancestral homelands,” the resolution stated.
Pressure on the Obama administration to publicly use the genocide label is mounting, coming from various spheres of influence. Scholars, religious leaders, and NGOs represented by the International Religious Freedom Roundtable recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging his administration to “formally declare the systematic destruction of these ancient communities a genocide.”
This past March, the U.N. human rights office strongly suggested that Islamic State may be committing genocide. Yet Adama Dieng, the U.N.’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, conveyed that it is not a simple move to make the designation.
“Only a judicial body with an appropriate mandate can make a legal determination,” Dieng said in a statement.
Dieng warned that “the international community cannot afford to wait until such a determination is made. We must take action to protect populations earlier, before situations deteriorate to the point where the window of opportunity closes and the options for action are fewer and more costly.”
Brett McGurk, America’s special presidential envoy to the Global Coalition To Counter ISIL, recently told reporters, “We’re going to destroy this terrorist organization, and in two ways: We’re going to suffocate the core, which is in Iraq and Syria; and we’re going to suffocate the global networks.”
The 65-member coalition’s plan is “taking back major ground and territory, of finding out about the financial networks, the economic structures, how they’re actually financing themselves, and then trying to root that out,” said McGurk.
Yet apart from America’s military goals for dealing with Islamic State, the Obama administration’s humanitarian efforts to prevent genocide remain a mystery. Last year, Obama stated in reference to the Yazidis that “the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide.”
Arabo—who lobbies on behalf of Chaldeans from the Middle East, particularly from Iraq, who are seeking asylum in the U.S.—believes that indeed, genocide is exactly what is being committed against Christians in the Middle East.
“We need to be upfront and honest when dealing with the culture of intolerance and persecution against religious minorities like Christians. We cannot turn a blind eye to the reality of death and genocide occurring against the Middle East Christian minorities,” Arabo told JNS.org.
Without the genocide designation, added Arabo, “We would be facing the end of Christianity in the Middle East. There is little hope, there is little chance, and there are no longer any viable options. The cradle with which Christianity was born will forever be altered by the evil that is ISIS.”