Washington D.C., – The U.S. House of Representative voted Monday to declare that what is happening to Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East is genocide.
H. Con. Res. 75, introduced by Reps. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) in September, expresses “the sense of Congress” that perpetrators of “atrocities” against Christians, Yezidis, Turkmens, Kurds, and other minorities in the Middle East for their religion or ethnicity are guilty of genocide, and that any supporters of the perpetrators are guilty as well.
Over 200 members of Congress from both parties had co-sponsored the resolution, and it passed out of the House Foreign Affairs Committee by a unanimous bipartisan vote earlier in March.
It passed Monday by a vote of 393-0, just days before the State Department’s March 17 deadline for announcing if it will issue an official declaration of genocide, as required in the recent Omnibus spending bill.
Speaking on the House Floor Monday afternoon before the vote, Rep. Fortenberry appealed to the “essential nature” of the resolution as the reason why so many members of both parties supported it.
“Not only is there a grave injustice happening in the Middle East, to the Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities who have as much a right to be in their ancient homeland as anybody else, but this is a threat against civilization itself,” he said.
“When a group of people, ISIS, eighth-century barbarians with 21st century weaponry, can systematically try to exterminate another group of people simply because of their faith tradition, violating the sacred space of individuality, conscience, and religious liberty, you undermine the entire system for international order, building out of rule of law, proper social interaction, civilization itself,” he continued.
The head of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, called Catholics on Monday to sign a petition recognizing the genocide of Middle Eastern Christians and asking the State Department to recognize the same.
“Today, the people of God must speak up for our brothers and sisters facing genocide in the Middle East. I urge every Catholic to sign the petition at www.stopthechristiangenocide.org,” the archbishop said.
“The very future of the ancient Christian presence in the Middle East is at stake,” he added. “With each passing day, the roll of modern martyrs grows. While we rejoice in their ultimate victory over death through the power of Jesus’ love, we must also help our fellow Christians carry the Cross of persecution and, as much as possible, help relieve their suffering.”
Despite the looming March 17 deadline for the State Department to announce its decision on whether to declare a genocide, the announcement may end up being delayed, according to the Associated Press, because it is still in the middle of a legal review of the situation.
A 300-page report detailing the atrocities committed against Christians in Iraq and Syria was sent to the State Department last week by the Knights of Columbus and the group In Defense of Christians. It contained first-hand testimonies from victims of violence and displacement by the Islamic State, or from family members of these victims.
It also listed acts of murder, theft, sexual slavery, and threats against Christians by the Islamic State.
The term “genocide” is significant because, although it may not be legally binding to the countries or authorities who use it, it carries a moral significance and could compel countries, and ultimately the United Nations Security Council, to act.
According to the 1948 United Nations Convention on Genocide, the definition of genocide is “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” These acts can include murder and torture but also mass displacement and any conditions intentionally brought about to end the ethnic or religious group.
Advocates have insisted that, along with countless stories of beheadings, crucifixion and torture of Christians, the mass displacement of Christians by the Islamic State in Northern Iraq where militants robbed them of their remaining possessions as they fled the city of Mosul also constitutes genocide, according to the UN definition.
Experts insist that the word carries with it significant meaning that other terms like “ethnic cleansing” lack.
Dr. Gregory Stanton, former president of the International Association of Genocide Scholars, testified before Congress in December that in previous cases where genocide was ultimately declared – Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Darfur — no significant international action was taken to stop the atrocities until the term “genocide” was used publicly to describe them.
The genocide resolution “raises the international consciousness and it compels the responsible communities of the world to act,” Rep. Fortenberry stated on Monday.
“And secondly, it creates the potential preconditions for when there is a security settlement in the Middle East that will allow these ancient faith traditions to reintegrate back into their own homelands and continue to contribute to the once-rich tapestry that made up the Middle East.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), speaking on the House floor on Monday, called the resolution a “solemn and extremely serious step, not to be taken lightly.”
It is “appeal to the conscience of the world,” he added. “It evokes the moral gravity and the imperative of ‘Never Again’. The United States must not wait any longer to find its voice and call these bloody purges for what they are, genocide.”
The U.S. could take a number of actions to respond to genocide, including expediting the refugee resettlement process for victims and providing greater humanitarian aid.
Also, a declaration of genocide by the U.S., following the declaration from the European Union Parliament in early February, would put greater pressure on the United Nations Security Council to issue a genocide declaration and refer the matter to the International Criminal Court where the perpetrators could be tried under international law.
“It will be the right word to say the truth,” Fr. Douglas al-Bazi, an Iraqi priest who ministers to the Mar Elia Refugee Camp in Erbil, Iraq, told CNA of the U.S. using the term “genocide.”
“This will not be the solution. This will be the beginning, the start of solution,” he continued. The U.S. using the word could help protect displaced Christian minorities, and could begin the process of “reconciliation” between Christians and their enemies.
“That means we can use the genocide not to revenge, but to show forgiveness,” he said. “As a Christian in Iraq, believe me,” he added, “we do love Muslims.”
“We cannot play that game, eye for an eye,” he said. “We do love you, we do forgive you, and we actually do feel sorry about you. And the message to you, it is please, put the weapon down and let’s open a new page, a page with forgiveness.”