WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the eve of the one-year anniversary of then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration that ISIS is guilty of genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, a coalition of concerned groups and individuals held a commemorative gathering at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, saying that words are not enough.
“This is a call to action,” said Robert Destro, a professor at the Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, who opened the gathering of the Genocide Coalition.
Summarizing its call to action, the group’s program for the gathering noted, “The Genocide Coalition calls on the Trump Administration and the international community to take swift action to secure, stabilize and economically revitalize these communities, as part of a larger effort to stabilize Iraq; to identify and punish those who aided and abetted ISIS in its campaign of genocide and terror; and to appoint to key positions qualified persons who will pursue these and related humanitarian and national security priorities.”
On March 17, 2016, Kerry had acknowledged that ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, ISIL and by the Arabic acronym Daesh “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”
In its statement, the Genocide Coalition noted, “One year later, nearly all of the survivors of this ongoing genocide remain uprooted from their communities, either as refugees or internally displaced persons. Without security, aid, justice, fundamental rights, and economic revitalization, these communities may never be able to return and rebuild.”
The coalition statement also charged that, “To date, too few of the survivors have received assistance from the American people through U.S. government and UN programs.”
The signers of the statement included Nina Shea, the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom; Robert George, a Princeton University law professor and the former chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; and representatives of the Shia and Yazidi faiths, and also leaders of Chaldean, Syrian, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Coptic and Evangelical Christians.
Also signing the statement were Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Toufic Baaklini, the president of the advocacy group In Defense of Christians. Last year, those two groups presented a nearly 300-page report to Kerry detailing acts of genocide by ISIS against Christians in the Middle East.
At the commemoration and call to action, Shea introduced a young woman whom she said has become the voice, face, and conscience of genocide survivors in Iraq – Nadia Murad.
In the fall of 2014, Murad – who was then 23 – escaped from ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and survived gang rapes, torture, and beatings. Her Yazidi village in Iraq had been overrun by ISIS, and her mother and six brothers were executed, and she and her sisters were taken as sex slaves.
Murad has become an international advocate for the victims of ISIS, and works with Yazda, an organization that supports the Yazidi people. She recently testified at a UN meeting alongside her lawyer, Amal Clooney. On her website, Murad said she tells her story because “the world must know.”
Speaking at the Genocide Coalition gathering through an interpreter, Murad said the U.S. declaration one year earlier “was a very important step. The victims want their suffering to be recognized.” But she added, “This genocide has not stopped.”
Iraq’s religious minorities victimized by the Islamic State still “live in refugee and displaced (person) camps…Thousands of captives are still held by ISIS,” she said, adding that children captured by the group are being brainwashed and trained to commit suicide bombings.
Mass graves remain unprotected in her country, and Murad charged that “a year has passed, and not a single ISIS fighter has been brought to justice. They are still free in Iraq and moving among many countries without any court or tribunal to bring them to justice.”
Concluding her remarks, Murad said, “This genocide must stop. The free world must provide a safe place for (religious and ethnic) minorities to live in dignity. ISIS must be ended. It is a danger to the world.”
Later, Crux asked Murad what gives her the strength to tell her story and advocate for the victims of ISIS, and she said, “When I look at myself and my people, who are innocent victims, it encourages me to continue to fight for justice.”
Also speaking at the gathering were Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), who cosponsored a bipartisan resolution declaring ISIS guilty of genocide against Middle Eastern religious minorities that passed the U.S. House of Representatives last March 14 by a unanimous vote of 393-0. Three days later, Kerry issued the State Department’s declaration acknowledging ISIS’s genocidal acts.
“Our work is not done,” Eshoo said. “We can’t take our foot off the pedal. Listening to Nadia reminds us we still have a great deal of work to do.”
She said religious minorities in the Middle East – “those of great faith, but who are minorities, (and) are being persecuted because of it” – must be remembered and helped.
Eshoo, along with Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), recently reintroduced the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act (H.R. 390) in Congress. In December, Smith traveled to Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and met with Christian survivors of the ISIS genocide.
Zina Kiryakos, an attorney with the Iraqi Christian Human Rights Council, spoke of the human cost of the ISIS reign of terror in her country, which she said has included the murders of bishops, priests, nuns, and countless men, women and children, with villages pillaged and churches destroyed, and more than 100,000 Iraqi Christians forced to flee their homes.
“If action is not taken, the genocide Secretary Kerry denounced will go on,” she said, warning that churches will continue to burn, and the Christian community there will continue to be decimated.
Iraqi Christians want to return to their ancestral lands, and again sleep in their homes and worship peacefully in their churches, she said.
Philippe Nassif, the executive director of In Defense of Christians, told the gathering, “We have to make sure the American public understands how serious this crisis is…We have much more work to do. The killing is not over. It continues.”
Andrew Walther, the vice president for communications for the Knights of Columbus, said Kerry’s declaration “used the right vocabulary for what was happening, but words are not enough.”
Later he told Crux that now the next step has to be taken. “There’s a new opportunity, with the new Congress and new administration, to take a second look at this and make sure we get it right, and make sure the genocide survivors are not left out.”
The Knights of Columbus recently announced a $2 million donation to support Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria. The world’s largest Catholic fraternal organization supports a wide range of initiatives and is a principal partner for Crux.
Also at the Genocide Coalition gathering, Kristina Arriaga, a member of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, underscored the urgency of the effort. “We must be the beacon of light for the world, when it comes to human rights and religious freedom,” she said.
Naomi Kikoler, the deputy director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, spoke of the tragedy that has unfolded for religious minorities in the Middle East.
“On our watch, genocide unfolded. It took place and was allowed to take place,” she said. “Today the same victims of ISIS crimes are living in tents, without hope…They’re living in a situation where genocide is ongoing, and where women and children are held captive.”
She added that 70 years after the Holocaust, the words “never again” must not be empty rhetoric – “They have to mean something,” she said.
Zainab al Suwaij of the American Islamic Congress said ISIS in its extreme radicalism has misrepresented the Muslim faith, which she noted has millions of adherents living peaceful, caring lives around the world.
She encouraged people of different faiths to stand together to protect religious freedom and to help victims of persecution rebuild their lives.
“It’s all of us, (it’s) our responsibility to keep fighting these forces of hatred,” said al Suwaij.
Speakers at the gathering also urged the international community to develop safe zones in Iraq for religious minorities, and to promote economic development there so people can regain employment and again support their families. They also highlighted the urgent need for medical aid for the communities victimized by ISIS.
Stephen Colecchi, the director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s Office of International Justice and Peace, read excerpts from a recent statement from the nation’s bishops urging solidarity with the suffering people of the Middle East.
That statement urged the United States to welcome refugees, with “special consideration of the victims of genocide and other atrocities,” and it encouraged Iraq’s government to promote equal citizenship and protection for all its citizens, and for the U.S. to offer generous humanitarian and development assistance to refugees and displaced persons there.
“To focus attention on the plight of Christians and other minorities is not to ignore the suffering of others,” Colecchi said, reading from the statement from bishops heading USCCB committees on religious liberty, international justice and peace, and migration, and representing Catholic Relief Services.
That statement concluded by noting, “Rather, by focusing on the most vulnerable members of society, we strengthen the entire fabric of society to protect the rights of all.”