The Obama administration is nearing a decision on whether to declare formally that atrocities by the Islamic State against religious minorities, including Christians, constitute genocide. As impatient lawmakers and religious groups step up calls for action, Secretary of State John Kerry may not make a determination by the March 17 deadline set by Congress, according to several administration officials.
The House will vote on March 14 on a bill that would identify the Islamic State’s actions against Christians, Yazidis and other groups as “genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” In a bid to push the process, several groups, including the Knights of Columbus, released reports documenting what they called clear evidence that the legal standard has been met.
“There is only one word that adequately, and legally, describes what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. That word is genocide,” Knights of Columbus chief Carl Anderson said on March 10 while presenting a 280-page report. The report identifies by name more than 1,100 Christians who have been killed by Islamic State militants. It also details numerous instances of people kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery and driven from their homes, along with the destruction of churches.
The report contains dozens of statements collected from Feb. 22 through March 3 from witnesses and victims of atrocities carried out by Islamic State forces. The incidents include torture, rapes, kidnappings, murder, forced conversions, bombings and the destruction of religious property and monuments. “Murder of Christians is commonplace. Many have been killed in front of their own families,” said the report, titled “Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East.”
The report argues that there is a case for genocide and called on Secretary of State John Kerry to make such a declaration and to include Christians in it. State Department officials hinted in October that a genocide designation was coming for the Yazidi minority but not for Christians. Those comments led to a firestorm of protest from Christian groups that resulted in Congressional action setting the March 17 deadline for Kerry to respond.
An executive branch determination of genocide would be fraught with moral and potential legal consequences. Although the United States is already involved in military strikes against ISIS and has helped prevent some incidents of ethnic cleansing, notably of Yazidis, a genocide determination could require additional U.S. action.
Kerry must weigh whether the Islamic State group’s targeting of Christians and other minorities meets the legal definition of genocide, which is “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” according to the U.N. Convention.
“This has to be done on the basis of the legal standard with respect to genocide and the legal standard with respect to crimes against humanity,” Kerry said in Congressional testimony late last month. “I have asked for further evaluation based on what I’ve heard in order to test against the law some of my own perceptions and evaluations and see where we come out.”
The European Parliament adopted a resolution in February stating that the Islamic State was “committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities who do not agree with the so-called ISIS/Daesh interpretation of Islam, and that this, therefore, entails action under the 1948 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the U.S. government in December to designate Christian, Yazidi, Shiite Muslim, Turkmen and Shabak communities in Iraq and Syria as victims of genocide by the Islamic State.