Will the Obama Administration Call the Persecution of the Middle East’s Christians By Its Right Name?
This past Monday, in a rare example of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously (393 to 0) passed a non-binding resolution declaring the horrors committed by the Islamic State against Christians and other religious monitories to be genocide and crimes against humanity.
The State Department has until tomorrow (March 17) to decide whether it wants to make a similar classification of ISIS’s atrocities, as required by Congress. Written into the omnibus spending bill passed in December, the deadline is congressionally mandated.
But, as of this writing, it would appear that Secretary of State John Kerry is still having some difficulty seeing what everybody else sees.
— Michael Harris Ph.D (@michaelharrisdr) March 15, 2016
While some were hopeful that Kerry would concur with the House, it’s looking increasingly likely that he’ll be dragging out the official determination, and will let the deadline pass tomorrow without any action.
Apparently, as more Christians perish and their centuries-old heritage sites in the lands of Christianity’s birth are systematically destroyed, the Obama administration feels the need for more time to ponder whether Islamic State atrocities have reached the “very specific legal determination” of genocide.
The U.S. House Takes Action, In Line with World Opinion
The House genocide resolution states that Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities
have been murdered, subjugated, forced to emigrate and suffered grievous bodily and psychological harm, including sexual enslavement and abuse, inflicted in a deliberate and calculated manner in violation of the laws of their respective nations, the laws of war, laws and treaties forbidding crimes against humanity”.
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (CA-R) stated, “ISIS is guilty of genocide…It has been using mass murder, beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture and enslavement in its deliberate campaign to eliminate religious minorities and bulldoze their history”.
According to the available evidence documented and reported by on-the-ground witnesses, governments, legislative bodies, human rights NGOs, faith-based organizations, and world leaders, ISIS’s actions without question rise to the level of genocide and “time is running out” to stop it.
Last month, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution referring to ISIS’s killing of religious minorities as genocide, making this the first time that the body recognized an ongoing conflict situation as a genocide.
The resolution particularly noted the impact on Christian communities which are among the most vulnerable groups that have been mercilessly targeted for eradication.
Officially classifying the Islamic State’s atrocities as an unfolding genocide would certainly help to bring about a global response to this crisis. Speaking up for the Middle East’s beleaguered and brutalized minority populations would invoke a “responsibility to protect” and, as has been noted, “there are a series of actions that [would] immediately come into play to stop [the genocide]”.
But Secretary of State John Kerry told a congressional committee last month that he still wants to do “more research” and an “additional evaluation” to determine if the label is warranted.
The Obama Administration’s Stubborn Silence
The White House too is fence-sitting.
Last week, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged ISIS targeting of Christians, but conceded that the administration is hesitating because of the “legal ramifications”.
But it’s hard to see why any more evidence would be needed in order to label the persecution and annihilation of Christians in the Middle East as genocide.
Katie Pavlich writes in a Town Hall op-ed last week:
the legal determination has in fact been reached, the evidence is clear, and it’s far past time for the White House to accept the brutal reality of what is happening”.
— Lisa Daftari (@LisaDaftari) March 10, 2016
To be sure, the term genocide shouldn’t be employed carelessly—it’s “not a synonym” for prejudice, racism, or discrimination.
Writing on Monday for the World Tribune, contributing editor Sol. W. Sanders helpfully explains:
It does of course have a specific meaning. In the 1948 United Nations Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide it was defined as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group’ including by means of ‘killing members of the group’”.
But as we’ve noted in many prior posts, with regard to ISIS’s actions, it’s clear that the standard has been met: the deliberate and systematic slaughter and persecution of Christians, Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities in ISIS-controlled territories is clearly motivated by genocidal intent.
Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of them have been murdered and driven out of their ancestral homes.
Iraq’s Christian population, which only ten years ago was roughly 1.5 million is now estimated to be less than 500,000.
In Syria, over 600,000 Christians have fled or died.
— ARnews 1936 (@ARnews1936) March 16, 2016
According to a study released by the charity organization Aid to the Church in Need, unless action is taken by the international community “Christians will be extinct” in Iraq and Syria within the next five years.
Similarly, a recent report issued by Open Doors, a human rights organization that’s been monitoring abuses perpetrated against Christians worldwide for the past six decades, documents that the persecution of Christians in the Middle East has now reached unprecedented levels.
In it, Iraq is identified as the second worst nation in the world (after North Korea, which ranked #1) in which to live as a Christian, and the worst Muslim nation in which to be a Christian (Syria is fifth and Libya is ranked 10th).
And as Raymond Ibrahim reminds yesterday in an important op-ed for Gatestone Institute,
A decade ago, none of these countries even made the top ten list. Syria and Libya—when they were ruled by secular autocrats who were eventually demonized by U.S. politicians and media, and then underwent U.S. intervention—did not even make the top 20”.
Mosul represents a prime example.
Once home to over 35,000 Iraqi Christians, it’s now been “cleared of its Christian inhabitants” after ISIS issued an ultimatum that they either convert or be executed.
Every week the media reports some new repulsive act. This week, the Islamic State reportedly conducted mass burnings of Christian books there.
— Israel News (@IsraelNewsNow) March 11, 2016
Explaining a Reticence to Act
Considering the “all-out war” being waged on Christians in Muslim territories all over the Middle East, one would think it would be a “no-brainer” for the Obama administration to define the Islamic State’s actions as amounting to genocide.
It’s a view that’s now been reiterated by America’s presidential hopefuls too. Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio stepped up in recent weeks to make the case for invoking the genocide label. Each has called for an official genocide declaration.
Notably, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has declined to use the term.
Multiple Christian groups and human rights and religious freedom advocacy organizations (e.g., Aid to the Church in Need, In Defense of Christians, and the Knights of Columbus) also have been calling on the Obama administration to recognize that Iraqi and Syrian Christians are now being subjected to genocidal conditions.
According to a poll conducted last year, fifty-five percent of Americans agree with the classification.
And earlier this week The Philos Project, a NYC-based organization committed to promoting a positive Christian engagement in the Middle East and assisting the Middle East’s Christian communities, sent an open letter to John Kerry on behalf of Assyrian and Iraqi Christians, making a strong legal case for the genocide designation.
Signed by The American Mesopotamian Organization, The Assyrian Aid Society of America, and the Iraqi Relief Council, the letter meticulously documents ISIS atrocities. It also gives special attention to those actions—such as an imposed jizya tax in order to avoid execution, conversion, or displacement—that are calculated to bring about Christianity’s physical destruction.
So, given all this information, Obama and Kerry’s stubborn refusal to apply the genocide terminology to current events in the Middle East is “something of a mystery”. Sol W. Sanders speculates that:
The Administration’s hesitation appears to be part of its general effort to find common ground with Muslim regimes in the Middle East, many of whom have long placed restrictions on Christian religious practice or looked the other way when violence occurred. This is after all an Administration which refuses to use the words ‘Islamic radical’ or ‘Islamic terror’ and coming to the defense of Christians in the region would clearly not fit into their strategy”.
It’s an assessment that Travis Weber, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council, largely agrees with:
Obama is delaying because…he doesn’t want to be labeled an apologist for Christians and seen as a representative of the ‘Christian West’ on the world stage.”
But the Obama administration’s hesitancy is also undoubtedly due to the fact that a genocide classification would put pressure on the White House to “ramp up the action” in the fight against ISIS.
There can be no doubt that the dire situation facing the Middle East’s Christians is a genocide:
The grim evidence has piled up in Syria and Iraq for two years. Christian men are crucified on public squares, Assyrian Christian women are sold into sex slavery and churches from Mosul to Qamishli are desecrated, looted or destroyed. Christian families by the hundreds of thousands are driven from their homes, robbed of their money and jewelry and sent walking or running for their lives. More than 70 non-government organizations have ruled that the Yazidi people and Assyrian Christians as well are victims of a true genocide. By now the whole of America is clued in to the fact that what is happening to Christians and other minority groups is genocide”.
While military intervention isn’t mandatory under the UN’s 1948 genocide convention, many international legal experts interpret it as obliging states to do something to put a stop to the atrocities and punish the perpetrators.
Other classifications of ISIS’s heinous brutality—ethnic cleansing or mass atrocity, for example—wouldn’t carry the same legal requirement for action.
Basically, this accounts for the Obama administration’s foot-dragging: designating the Islamic State’s actions against Christians and other minority groups as genocidal would require that the President commit to doing more in a world region that he simply doesn’t think is “terribly important to American interests” and from which he desperately wants to disengage.
Some twenty years ago, a different administration also stubbornly refused to use the “g” word until it was too late. Like today, at that time too there was plenty of evidence that a minority community was facing an unimaginable horror of genocidal proportions. But then too the evidence was willfully ignored by U.S. public officials who tied their tongues up in knots to avoid mentioning the term genocide for “fear of being obliged to act”.
History didn’t look kindly on that U.S. administration for standing by as an entire human community was mercilessly attacked by those intent to wipe them off the face of the earth. Years later, a contrite and regretful former President would stand on the tarmac of Kigali’s airport to beg a people’s forgiveness.
Miriam F. Elman is an associate professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship & Public Affairs, Syracuse University. She is the editor of five books and the author of over 60 journal articles, book chapters, and government reports on topics related to international and national security, religion and politics, the Middle East, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also frequently speaks and writes on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) anti-Israel movement. Follow her on Twitter @MiriamElman