Catholics urge Obama to use ‘genocide’ label against ISIS

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An Iraqi Christian woman holds a cross during Mass at the Church of the Virgin of Nasiriyah in Amman, Jordan, in 2014. (Photo: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

The Knights of Columbus, one of the largest Catholic fraternal organizations in the world, is calling on President Obama to declare that the Islamic State is guilty of “genocide” against Christians.

The group is releasing on Thursday a nearly 300-page report on an ISIS campaign of torture, murder, rape and enslavement in the areas it controls in Iraq and Syria.

The Obama administration has come under increasing pressure to formally invoke the “genocide” label against ISIS, as the Islamic State is also known, a dramatic step with uncertain political, legal and even military consequences. Congress last year set a March 17 deadline for the State Department to announce its determination of whether or not the Islamic State meets the relevant legal definitions.

The Knights of Columbus report, which was obtained by Yahoo News, urges Obama to include Christians in any “genocide” determination affecting the Islamic State.

The report includes a legal brief making the case that actions by ISIS meet the definition of genocide as laid out in a 1948 treaty. That agreement requires signatories, including the United States, to take steps “to prevent and to punish” genocide, which it defines as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group.”

The Knights of Columbus report includes extensive witness statements collected from people who fled areas overrun by the Islamic State, with stories of violence against the elderly and children, extortion, beheadings, crucifixions, rapes and more. And it contains lists of Christians killed and churches ransacked, and what appears to be an ISIS price list for sex slaves.

“ISIS is committing genocide — the ‘crime of crimes’ — against Christians and other religious groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya,” the report says. “It is time for the United States to join the rest of the world by naming it and by taking action against it as required by law.”

The Thursday press conference will include remarks by Father Douglas al-Bazi, a priest at Mar Elia Refugee Camp in Erbil, Iraq.

“I am personally begging the people of America to recognize a genocide,” al-Bazi told Yahoo News by telephone on Wednesday. The priest despaired for the Christian community in Iraq and Syria. “It’s enough: We were two million, now we are 300,000, and I know that in another five years we will disappear.”

Slideshow: Christians flee the Islamic State >>>

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A displaced Iraqi Christian woman holds a picture of her 4-year-old relative, David, who was killed by militants, at St. Joseph Church in Irbil, Iraq, in 2014. (Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Yahoo News was first to report last November that the administration was looking to invoke the “genocide” label. The plan drew controversy from the outset. The State Department at the time was considering a declaration covering only the Yazidis, an ethnic/religious minority of about 500,000 in northern Iraq, whom ISIS had openly declared its intention to exterminate.

Christian groups and members of Congress quickly insisted that the Islamic State’s atrocities against Christians in Iraq and Syria amounted to genocide as well.

In December, the Knights of Columbus wrote a letter requesting a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry to make their case for why the atrocities against Christians amounted to genocide. The meeting never happened, but State Department officials asked the organization to put together a dossier of evidence they could review. That led to the creation of the report.

Kerry said in late February that he would decide soon on whether to make a genocide declaration. In August 2014, the senator-turned-top-diplomat had said the Islamic State’s actions against Yazidis and Christians “bear all the warning sings and hallmarks of genocide.”

The House of Representatives is expected to approve a nonbinding resolution next week declaring that the Islamic State is guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Yazidis, Christians and other ethnic and religious minorities. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, has declared that there is enough evidence to make the declaration. The Knights of Columbus have also secured some 60,000 signatures on an online petition pressing Kerry not to exclude Christians from the designation. Signatories include Republican presidential candidate John Kasich.

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Displaced Iraqi Christians take refuge at the St. Joseph Church in Irbil, Iraq, in 2014. (Photo: Khalid Mohammed/AP)

And Yahoo News recently reported that the issue has become the subject of an intense debate inside the administration.

Sources told Yahoo News that questions remain about whether the Islamic State’s actions rise to the level of genocide. Some officials argue that, while the group has openly declared it aims to wipe out the Yazidis, its leaders have not said the same about Christians — although it has targeted them with killings, kidnappings, the destruction of churches and other violence.

The report aims to rebut that argument, noting that the treaty definition covers actions against a group “in whole or in part” and citing ISIS rhetoric about wiping out Christians, notably in its official Dabiq magazine.

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women, by the permission of Allah, the Exalted. This is His promise to us. He is glorified and He does not fail in His promise. If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market,” one such passage reads.

The practical impact of the genocide designation is unclear. Sources recently told Yahoo News that Pentagon officials worry that it would impose a moral obligation on the United States to take military steps to protect the afflicted populations, potentially taking resources away from the efforts to “degrade and destroy” ISIS.

Either way, top Obama aides underline that the United States has hardly been idle when it comes to protecting those targeted by ISIS, with or without the “genocide” designation.

“It has significant consequences, and it matters for a whole variety of reasons, both legal and moral,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said early last month. “But it doesn’t change our response. And the fact is that this administration has been aggressive, even though that term has not been applied, in trying to protect religious minorities who are victims or potential victims of violence.”

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