Update: Hours after the publication of this article media sources reported that, "The Islamic State is committing genocide against Yazidis, Christians and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry declared on Thursday [today].... Kerry's decision was welcomed by lawmakers and faith-based advocacy groups who have lobbied for months to ensure that Christians would be included among the genocide victims of the Islamic State." Despite this welcomed news, a review of the Obama administration's original rejection of the term "genocide" — conceding only now after the House of Representatives voted 393 to 0 on a resolution that does describe Christians as victims of genocide — as well as any number of previous administration biases against Christian minorities in the Islamic world are all chronicled in the following article and remain instructive.
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According to the Obama administration, the Islamic State is committing genocide against certain religious minority groups — excluding Christian minorities. During a February 29 press briefing, White House spokesman Josh Earnest was asked: "Is the Islamic State carrying out a campaign of genocide against Syria's Christians?" He replied:
Well, we have long expressed our concerns with the tendency of -- well, not a tendency -- a tactic employed by ISIL to slaughter religious minorities in Iraq and in Syria. You'll recall at the very beginning of the military campaign against ISIL that some of the first actions that were ordered by President Obama, by the United States military, were to protect Yazidi religious minorities that were essentially cornered on Mt. Sinjar by ISIL fighters. We took those strikes to clear a path so that those religious minorities could be rescued.
Due to the obvious equivocation — it is unclear how Obama's efforts "to protect Yazidi religious minorities" answers a question about persecuted Christians — the question was repeated: "But you're not prepared to use the word 'genocide' yet in the situation [regarding Christians]?"
My understanding is the use of that word involves a very specific legal determination that has at this point not been reached.
What is this "very specific legal determination" that encompasses Yazidis but excludes Christians? The Islamic State's treatment of Christians would seem to fit under the UN's definition of "genocide":
Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;...
ISIS is guilty of "killing members of the [Christian] group" and causing them "serious bodily or mental harm." Although two separate videotaped mass executions (one of 21 Egyptian Christians and another of 30 Ethiopian Christians) were reported by the mainstream media, accounts of torture, rape, mutilation, crucifixion, and massacres of Christians are regularly reported on Arabic and alternate media.
The Islamic State has also been responsible for "deliberately inflicting on the group [Christians] conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part." ISIS has placed these "conditions of life" — more literally known in Islamic doctrine as the "Conditions of Omar" — on Christians. They included a number of humiliations and debilitations — from the suppression of Christian worship to the extortion of money (jizya) — a "protection" tax designed to "encourage" Christians to convert to Islam or flee.
ISIS seems further committed to expunging all physical traces of Christianity in the areas it conquers. It has demolished dozens of ancient churches; at least 400 churches in Syria have been destroyed since the war, as well as countless statues and crucifixes. ISIS has also desecrated Christian cemeteries and ordered the University of Mosul to burn all books written by Christians and decreed that all schools in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain that bore Christian names (some since the 1700s) be changed.
Then there are the numbers. In Iraq, Christians, who totaled 1.4 million in 2003, are now down to about 300,000. In Syria, Christians, who totaled 1.25 million in 2011, are now down to about 500,000.
The Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Ephrem in Mosul, Iraq, before it was captured by the Islamic State (left), and after.
Finally, ISIS is on record saying that its eradication of Christians is due to their religious identity.
Due to all these indicators, many groups and rights activists believe that ISIS's treatment of Christians "fits the definition of ethnic cleansing," in the words of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial. A European Parliament resolution adopted in April 2015 stated that "Christians are the most persecuted religious group. ... according to data the number of Christians killed every year is more than 150,000."
Most recently, on March 14, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a resolution that "pressures the Obama administration to officially declare the Islamic State's bloodshed against Christians, Yazidis and other groups, including the Kurds, as 'genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.'"
The resolution passed 393 to 0.
Even so, the Obama administration's rejection of the word "genocide" fits a familiar pattern:
- When asked about the plight of Christians under ISIS, Colonel Steve Warren said "We've seen no specific evidence of a specific targeting toward Christians."
- Although Christians number 10% of Syria's population, only 2% of refugees accepted into the U.S. from there are Christian. (The majority of refugees — almost 98% — are Sunni Muslims, the same sect to which ISIS belongs and thus are not persecuted.)
- When inviting scores of Muslim representatives, the State Department has repeatedly denied visas to solitary Christian representatives.
- When a few persecuted Iraqi Christians crossed the border into the U.S., they were thrown in prison for several months and then sent back to the war zone.
- When persecuted Coptic Christians planned on joining Egypt's anti-Muslim Brotherhood revolution of 2013, the Obama administration, in the person of Ambassador Anne Patterson, counseled them not to.
- When persecuted Iraqi and Syrian Christians asked for arms to join the opposition fighting ISIS, D.C. refused.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of Crucified Again: Exposing Islam's New War in Christians (a Gatestone Publication, published by Regnery, April 2013), is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and Judith Friedman Rosen Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.