WASHINGTON — Three people who played key roles in paving the way for the U.S. government’s recognition that ISIS is committing genocide – the “crime of crimes” – against Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria said Sept. 8 the designation should spur the United States and the world community to take action.
During its third annual advocacy convention in Washington, the group In Defense of Christians presented Solidarity Awards to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) for their key roles in cosponsoring a bipartisan resolution declaring ISIS guilty of genocide against those Middle Eastern religious minorities that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on March 14 by a unanimous vote of 393-0.
Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, also received a Solidarity Award from the IDC. The Knights of Columbus, along with In Defense of Christians, presented a nearly 300-page report on “Genocide against Christians in the Middle East” to Secretary of State John Kerry on March 9.
Eight days later, the Secretary of State designated ISIS atrocities against Yezidis, Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East as genocide.
Anderson said he accepted the award “on behalf of those Christians in the Middle East who have lost everything – except their faith.” He said their everyday heroism represented a “triumph of faith, hope and love” that should inspire people of faith, and of no faith, around the world.
The Knights’ and IDC report on genocide had noted that ISIS’ wave of terror included documented cases of “killings, rapes, torture, kidnappings, bombings and the destruction of religious property and monuments.”
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As ISIS militants occupied lands in Iraq and Syria where Christians had lived since the first century, Christians there faced the choice of converting to Islam, paying a heavy tax, fleeing with the clothes on their back, or being executed. Thousands of Christian families had to walk eight to ten hours through the desert to find safe haven, and arriving as refugees in Erbil, Iraq, slept in churches, classrooms, halls, garages, and tents. Some found homes with other Christians, or in prefabricated housing.
But Anderson warned that “many survivors now face a new genocide by attrition,” and he noted that many “now live as refugees who cannot find employment or housing or adequate medical care or clothing or education for their children.”
The world cannot remain silent or indifferent to their plight, he said, adding, “A genocide that some began by the sword cannot be allowed to succeed through indifference.”
Eshoo, a Chaldean Catholic of Assyrian and Armenian heritage, said her work on this issue doesn’t come from a party or ideology, “it comes from my gift of faith.” She said she was inspired by the legacy of her parent’s families, and their stories of suffering, of being Middle Eastern Christians “targeted because of their faith,” who found hope as immigrants to the United States.
Speaking of the Middle East and its people, Eshoo said, “It matters not to me what faith these people are. My faith instructs me that we are all God’s children… We all have a responsibility for each other.” She added, “When we see people of faith persecuted because of their faith, we need to rise up.”
Fortenberry said he was present when Pope Francis was given a small cross that had been worn by a young Syrian man, who was captured by jihadists, and told to convert to Islam or die. “He chose Christ,” the congressman said, noting that the young man’s mother later found his body, and was able to salvage the cross that he had worn.
The Nebraskan said he accepted the Solidarity Award “on behalf of all persecuted people… who are armed with nothing but the fortitude of the Holy Spirit, and choose Christ.” Fortenberry said the genocide resolution named the problem, and he hoped it would compel nations, and good people, to act on behalf of suffering religious minorities in the region. “It has laid the foundation for further action,” he said.
The next day, Fortenberry introduced a Nineveh Plain resolution in Congress, supporting the establishment of a province for indigenous Christians and other people of the Nineveh Plain region, which is a key legislative priority of the IDC and its partner groups advocating for Middle Eastern Christians.
More than one dozen members of Congress, representing both parties, attended the Solidarity Dinner, held at the Capitol Hill Club near the U.S. Capitol.
This year’s IDC convention had as its theme, “Beyond Genocide: Preserving Christianity in the Middle East,” and the group’s fact sheet on its advocacy agenda noted that most of the remaining 200,000 Christians in Iraq live as internally displaced persons and want to return to their historic homeland in the Nineveh Plain.
The Iraqi government, along with Assyrian Christian and Yezidi communities, has supported the establishment of such a province where those religious minorities could return home and live in peace without fear of persecution.
“As indigenous people, they have a right to stay… They need protection, especially in places where they were targeted for genocidal elimination,” said Robert Nicholson, executive director of the Philos Project, which promotes positive Christian engagement in the Middle East.
The partner groups supporting the IDC conference included the Philos Project; the Armenian National Committee of America; the Institute for Global Engagement, which promotes building sustainable environments for religious freedom within countries; and the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.
In addition to supporting the Nineveh Plain resolution, the convention’s advocacy agenda included requests for the United States to take steps to support security and stability in Lebanon, to encourage Egypt to help rebuild destroyed Christian churches there, and to call on Turkey to acknowledge the consequences of and offer a just resolution to the 1915 genocide against Armenians, Greeks and Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac people.
Aram Hamparian, the executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, said that it was important for those groups to stand in solidarity with each other, not for political purposes, but as a moral imperative. “We are truly today, and always, your brothers and sisters,” he said.
The opening prayer at the dinner was offered by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, who prayed that “our prayers and efforts will be a sign of hope to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East” who have suffered through violence, poverty, and persecution.
In his keynote address at the dinner, former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft noted that freedom is a gift from God, and that our nation’s founders established religious liberty as the first freedom in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
“The idea of religious freedom is at the forefront and center, not just of what it means to be an American, but what it means to be a human being,” he said.
In concluding remarks, Toufic Baaklini, the president of In Defense of Christians, described visiting Christian refugee camps in Iraq. “They all spoke of the same hope, the hope of one day going home…We witnessed their strength, and we witnessed their suffering,” he said.
Like other speakers at the IDC conference, he emphasized the importance of solidarity to suffering Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East, through prayers and humanitarian assistance like medical supplies, and through advocating for long-term solutions, so those communities can return to their ancestral lands and live in peace, side-by-side with people of other faiths, as they have for centuries.
The Knights of Columbus since 2014 have raised $11 million for Christian refugees in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries, providing support for food, medical clinics and educational programs. In his remarks, the Knights’ leader Anderson said the real gift is being provided by those suffering Christians.
“They inspire us to renew our Christian identity, reaffirm our Christian solidarity, and proclaim to the world that we are one with them,” said Anderson.
Their witness of faith, he added, is “the greatest gift” and a “patrimony of humanity” that should be protected like the United Nations’ World Heritage Sites, because those Christians from near the birthplace of Christianity can help inspire “the renewal of our Christian faith, here in our country and throughout the world.”