Legal experts, religious leaders, and now an independent government commission are asking the U.S. State Department to include Christians among the victims of genocide perpetrated by ISIS. “We recently learned that a State Department finding is imminent that ISIS is committing genocide against the Yazidis. We would wholeheartedly endorse that finding, but we are deeply troubled by the prospect that the Department’s statement will either omit or reserve judgment on whether ISIS is committing genocide against Christians,” stated a Dec. 4 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry from a group of legal experts, scholars, and religious leaders. The 30 signers urged the State Department to broaden its search for evidence of genocide, saying that the search has so far been “too narrow” and might only result in a designation of atrocities committed against Yazidis in Iraq. This would then exclude acts of violence in large parts of Iraq and Syria, committed with the intent to wipe out Christian and Shi’a Muslim communities and other ethnic and religious minorities, the signers said. The State Department has reportedly based its forthcoming genocide designation on “a limited review of ISIS’ actions in Nineveh, Iraq, since the summer of 2014,” the letter stated, and thus would omit ISIS actions in large swaths of Iraq and Syria. As a result, the department “lacks sufficient information about the experience of the Christian communities in Nineveh during that time to conclude that genocide took place,” the letter added. The United Nations’ definition of genocide focuses on acts that are committed against a certain religious or ethnic group with the intent to “destroy, in whole or in part” — acts like mass murder, torture, or mass displacement with the intent to bring about the group’s end. Experts say that an official U.S. genocide designation would put pressure on the United Nations to classify the ISIS atrocities as genocide, resulting in international action to stop the atrocities and the trial of the perpetrators under international law. Christians and other genocide victims could also have a higher priority for acceptance in the U.S. as refugees. On Friday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom weighed in, adding the heft of an independent, bipartisan federal government commission to the discussion, which has included the voices of academics, legal experts, religious leaders and advocacy groups. Commission chairman Robert George told CNA that the group voted “to urge the administration to designate Christians, as well as Yazidis and other small religious minorities as victims of genocide in Iraq and Syria.” The other religious minorities they submitted for inclusion were Shi’a, Turkmen, and Shabak communities in Iraq and Syria. In a statement released Monday, the commission also asked for “a firm condemnation of the brutal persecution of, and crimes against humanity committed against, Sunni Muslims by the Assad regime in Syria and by ISIL in the case of Sunni Muslims who refuse to embrace their extremist ideology.” One argument for the lack of a genocide designation for Christians is that ISIS considers them “People of the Book” and — at least in theory — offers them an option to remain in their homes by paying a “jizya” tax to the Islamic State, rather than flee or be killed. But while this hypothetically would enable Christians’ survival, albeit as second-class citizens, it is “not a real choice,” insisted Professor Robert Destro of The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law. “Even if you pay, you’re not going to be able to practice your religion,” he told CNA. “As a practical matter, you’re going to be forced to leave, and you will likely be killed. And remember, they [ISIS] are tearing down the churches.” “This meets the classic definition of genocide,” he said. Additionally, the very fact that the Islamic State is forcing Christians to leave, convert to their Islamist beliefs or pay a jizya tax is proof “that they’re focusing on religion,” part of the definition of genocide, Destro added. For the U.S. State Department not to issue a genocide designation for Christians simply because they have an option to pay the jizya tax could give such a practice “legitimacy,” warned Roger Severino, director of the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, at a Dec. 4 panel on ISIS’ persecution of religious minorities. He added that “the point” of the tax “is to force you to convert, one way or another.” “They [ISIS] will just keep taking it [the tax] until you have no money left, and then they’ll take your land and they’ll take your women,” Nadine Maenza, chair of the global freedom advocacy group Hardwired, said at the Heritage panel. “So eventually you will be forced to leave.” There is enough evidence of genocide that the State Department would have access to, Destro added, that they need not rely on such a limited report on the genocide against Yazidis. The Dec. 4 letter claims evidence of mass murder, torture, sexual slavery, kidnapping, forced conversions, desecration and destruction of churches, monasteries, and sacred sites and artifacts. ISIS has publicly taken credit for mass murder and has stated “its intent to eliminate Christian communities from its ‘Islamic State,’” the letter added. The signers asked Secretary Kerry to meet with a delegation that could provide him ample evidence of genocide against Christians. Additionally, ISIS is reportedly targeting Christians in refugee camps in the region, which advocates say is a further signal of genocide. “We have evidence that Christians in the camps are being targeted, that ISIS and other militias are sending assassins into the camps, that there is sex slavery and kidnapping happening within the camps,” said Patrick Kelly of the Knights of Columbus, which has given aid to the Middle Eastern Christian communities, at the Heritage panel. Signatories on the Dec. 4 letter include Thomas Farr, director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project; former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Mary Ann Glendon, who teaches at Harvard Law School; and former U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, who is now Distinguished Senior Fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., was among the religious signatories of the letter, along with Chaldean Bishop Sarhad Y. Jammo of the Western U.S.A., Archbishop Oshagan of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, and representatives of the Anglican, Baptist, Evangelical and Greek Orthodox communities. Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus also signed the letter, as did Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, and Katrina Lantos Swett, president of the Lantos Foundation.
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