More than 100 religious leaders, scholars, and human rights advocates signed a letter Monday asking President Obama to formally declare the killing and displacement of Middle Eastern religious minorities a “genocide.”
“We humbly request that your office publicly acknowledge and denounce the Islamic State’s actions as genocide and act with all due haste to ensure that this ongoing, abominable crime is halted, prevented and punished and that the religious freedom and human dignity of all people currently suffering under the Islamic State are allowed to flourish,” the Oct. 5 letter stated.
The Islamic State – known also as ISIS and ISIL – has waged a campaign of violence against the religious minorities of the region, including the “Christian, Yezidi and Shia Muslim communities,” the letter said. The list of grievances includes “displacement, forced conversion, kidnapping, rape and death.”
The atrocities meet the United Nations’ definition of “genocide,” the letter claims.
ISIS has captured large parts of Syria and Iraq in the last two years and has established a strict caliphate, forcing the local religious minorities under pain of death to leave their homes, convert to Islam, or remain and pay a special tax.
They have consequently displaced myriads of Christians, Yazidi and Shia Muslims, inflicting countless atrocities upon those populations. In the Nineveh Plain alone in Northern Iraq, over 100,000 Christians have been displaced from their homes.
ISIS has also desecrated, looted, and destroyed monasteries, shrines, and other ancient relics and artifacts of the region.
The letter to President Obama was signed by numerous religious and civic leaders, including Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus; Professor Robert Destro of the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law; and Dr. Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
There are certain conditions that must be met for genocide, according to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.
There must be an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.” The actions in question can range from murder to torture, kidnappings, prevention of births, and withholding of critical resources like food and water from a group of people.
A declaration of genocide also has international legal consequences. The offending parties must be tried before an international court or by a tribunal of the state where the alleged crimes were committed. Parties declaring genocide must also act to prevent further violence from taking place.
A resolution calling the atrocities genocide has already been introduced in the House by Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), weeks earlier. It currently has 96 cosponsors.
Pope Francis, in his address before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25, pleaded for the international community to protect endangered Middle Eastern religious minorities.
“I must renew my repeated appeals regarding to the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement,” he said.
In a later interview with CNA, Professor Robert Destro remarked that the Holy Father, with those words, used what is “the legal definition of genocide” to describe the atrocities without saying the actual word “genocide.”
Ultimately, the religious and ethnic minorities “face an existential crisis,” and their communities are threatened with “eventual non-existence without swift moral leadership on behalf of the administration and the international community,” the letter concluded.