Iraqi Christians, who fled the violence in Mosul after Islamic State militants took control of the area, carry a wooden cross on Friday in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)
Pressure mounted Friday for President Obama’s administration to formally accuse the so-called Islamic State of genocide, as an influential Catholic service organization said it will release a report next week detailing the extremist group’s systematic atrocities against Christians.
The Knights of Columbus will make public “a comprehensive and encyclopedic” accounting of “the genocidal atrocities committed against Christians in Iraq, Syria and the surrounding area by ISIS and its affiliates,” the organization’s vice president for communications, Andrew Walther, told Yahoo News by telephone. The Islamic State is also known as ISIS or ISIL.
The report will compile witness interviews, data collected on the ground in Iraq and Syria, information from church officials in Syria, public sources and documentation provided to the European Parliament for its “genocide” determination to lay out “a very strong legal case” or why the “genocide” label is appropriate and necessary, Walther said.
The Knights of Columbus will release the study on March 10 at a press conference in Washington, D.C.
Yahoo News was first to report last November that the administration was looking to invoke the “genocide” label, a dramatic step with uncertain political, legal and even military consequences. The plan drew controversy from the outset. The State Department looked at the time to limit the designation to the Islamic State’s openly declared plans to exterminate the Yazidi, a northern Iraq religious minority of about 500,000.
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 to be released next week.
Kerry said in late February that he would decide soon whether to declare that ISIS is guilty of genocide. Congress approved a measure late last year requiring him to make that determination by March 17. In August 2014, the senator turned top diplomat had said the Islamic State’s actions against Yazidi and Christians “bear all the warning sings and hallmarks of genocide.”
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State. (Photo: Rodi Said/Reuters)
Earlier this week, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs unanimously approved a resolution declaring that the Islamic State is guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against the Yazidi, 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 45,000 signatures on an online petition pressing Kerry not to exclude Christians from the designation. Signatories include Republican presidential candidate Gov. John Kasich.
Yahoo News recently reported that the issue had become the subject of an intense debate inside the Obama administration.
Sources told Yahoo News that questions remain about whether the Islamic State’s actions fall short of genocide. Officials argue that, while the group has openly declared it aims to wipe out the Yazidi, its leaders have not said the same about Christians, even though it has targeted them with killings, kidnappings, the destruction of churches and other acts of violence.
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.
The 1948 treaty that addresses the issue requires signatories like the United States to take steps “to prevent and to punish” genocide. It defines genocide as acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical (sic), racial or religious group.” The question of “intent” is what has led U.S. officials to look at the contrast between ISIS leaders’ public statements about the Yazidi and those about Christians.
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” label.
“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.”