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Weighing atrocities

Weighing atrocities

The ruins of the Armenian Church of Sinjar, Iraq. The city was invaded by ISIS in August 2014. (Alessandro Rota/SIPA via AP)

With European bodies taking legal action against the Islamic State, declaring its atrocities against Christians and other religious minorities genocide, human rights advocates are questioning why the United States so far has refused to act likewise.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights body, on Jan. 27 overwhelmingly passed a genocide resolution, 117-1. Its action paved the way for an early February vote in the European Parliament.

The resolution condemned acts of terror by the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq and Syria and other countries. It cited mass killings, torture, and deprivation directed against specific religious groups as “acts of genocide” punishable under international law.

“It is very important to see that an international institution representing an even larger and more diverse group of countries than the EU has recognized the ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle East as genocide,” said Sophia Kuby, director of European Union advocacy for ADF International.

Kuby and others hope the European measures pressure the UN Security Council, where a genocide declaration could lead to prosecution of ISIS leaders in international courts. Worldwide condemnation, too, adds official urgency—and additional international funding—to humanitarian efforts to protect victims. A genocide declaration, for instance, could help prioritize asylum seekers, easing the migrant crisis.

Failing to take action, said Kuby, “would mean stopping short of doing everything we can to address a situation that has caused severe physical and mental suffering to millions.” Syria’s Christian population has dropped from 1.25 million to 500,000 since 2011, while the number of Christians in Iraq has dropped from over 1 million a decade ago to perhaps 250,000.

“Genocide” describes actions taken with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, coined the term in 1944 to criminalize the Nazi holocaust of European Jews, and the term was first applied at the international military tribunal at Nuremberg. It’s now codified in a 1948 UN convention and in U.S. federal law.

Despite a catalog of organized ISIS atrocities—mass rape, beheadings, dislocation, and wholesale destruction of churches and other property—directed primarily at Christians, Yazidis, and others, the Obama administration has been reluctant to label the actions genocide. President Obama doesn’t use the word, instead speaking on Jan. 15 of “unspeakable violence and persecution,” and Secretary of State John Kerry has stiff-armed religious leaders on the issue.

Thirty church leaders and scholars signed a Dec. 4 letter to Kerry calling for a U.S. genocide declaration to protect both Christian and Yazidi victims. The signatories included the Catholic archbishop of Washington and prominent Armenian, Anglican, Orthodox, and Southern Baptist clergy, but to date they’ve received no response from Kerry.

“The silence is really disturbing,” said Nina Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “There’s a backlash against the concept of genocide. It doesn’t matter who committed what atrocity, everybody is somehow equal. It’s very worrisome because it means minorities anywhere can be completely driven away, wiped out.”

Pressure may be building on President Obama. A bipartisan resolution introduced in the U.S. House has 178 co-sponsors. Last December’s omnibus spending bill gave the administration 90 days to report to lawmakers on whether violence against Middle East Christians “constitutes mass atrocities or genocide.” And the issue has surfaced on the campaign trail, with Hillary Clinton defying the administration’s nuanced wording.

Asked about the Islamic State’s killing of religious minorities, she told a town hall in New Hampshire, “I am now sure we have enough evidence, what is happening is genocide deliberately aimed at destroying lives and wiping out the existence of Christians and other religious minorities.”