Secretary of state declares ISIS guilty of genocide; Christian leaders respond

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement on ISIS and genocide in the Press Briefing Room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2016. (Photo by U.S. State Department)

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WASHINGTON—ISIS is guilty of committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said March 17.

Christians, Yazidis and Shiite Muslims are victims of genocide and crimes against humanity perpetrated by the group variously known as the Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, Kerry asserted.

A broad-based coalition of religious groups and human rights organizations—including the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, led by Randel Everett, former executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas—urged the United States to declare as genocide the systematic killing of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

“The most brutal reality imaginable”

“Today, the United States stood with millions in Iraq and Syria who have experienced the most brutal reality imaginable—genocide,” said Frank Wolf, a distinguished senior fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative and former U.S. congressman.

Everett credited Wolf with bringing about the genocide declaration.

“Frank Wolf’s leadership has been an invaluable asset to the only two instances in which an active situation has been declared genocide, first in Darfur in 2004 and now in Iraq and Syria,” Everett said.

In December, Congress included in its omnibus bill a provision giving the secretary of state 90 days to report whether the persecution by ISIS constitutes genocide. The House of Representatives unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution March 14 condemning ISIS actions as genocide.

“My purpose in appearing before you today is to assert that, in my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi’a Muslims,” Kerry said in a news conference at the U.S. State Department.

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“Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions in what it says, what it believes and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and, in some cases, also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities.”

Hold perpetrators accountable

Kerry urged the international community to hold the group accountable and called for an independent investigation regarding crimes against humanity.

“One element of genocide is the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group in whole or in part. We know that Daesh has given some of its victims the choice of abandoning their faith or being killed and that, for many, is the choice between one kind of death and another,” Kerry said.

“The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they are Yazidis and Shi’a because they are Shi’a. … Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology.”

Kerry voiced hope that victims of persecution would take comfort in knowing “the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.”

On his Twitter feed, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, tweeted: “Glad the Administration is at last ready to call ISIS destruction of Christian and Yazidi communities what it is: genocide. #NeverAgain.”

Remember the lost and suffering

Kerry’s assertion of genocide emphasizes the depth of the tragedy, stressed Elijah Brown, executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative.

“The declaration of genocide is a solemn occasion that should give us pause to first and foremost remember those who have been lost and those who continue to suffer at the hands of the Islamic State,” Brown said. “Thousands of Christians continue to live in the harsh conditions of internal displacement, face limited education and vocational opportunities and hold onto hope in the midst of extreme difficulty. …

“This significant marker for justice is a testament that policy makers, religious leaders, civil society actors and those being persecuted themselves can join together in solidarity against the voices of violence to empower movements that advance human rights and religious freedom as a universal right,” he said.

“When people of goodwill pray together, work together and lift their voice, the forces of injustice can be counteracted,” he added, noting the declaration confirms that fact.

“This is a significant step, and I look forward to working with the many who have made this possible in ongoing efforts to indict those who have perpetrated these crimes, seek rehabilitation for those who have suffered, and pursue the full restoration of peace in both Iraq and Syria.”

“An important step”

International Christian Concern, a human rights watchdog group focused on the persecution of Christians, expressed gratitude for the genocide declaration. Nate Lance, the organization’s advocacy manager expressed gratitude Kerry identified ISIS actions as genocidal.

“Their killing, enslavement, human trafficking, rape and destruction of Christian and religious minority communities in Iraq and Syria can be classified as nothing else,” Lance said.

“Although there is uncertainty and disagreement regarding next steps, having the genocide designation in place raises international concern and solidarity against ISIS to the highest level. This is an important step in defeating this group and restoring freedom to the communities that they have terrorized.”

Douglas Napier, executive director of the Alliance Defending Freedom International, termed Kerry’s declaration “an important first step in the necessary process by the United States, the UN and the international community to stop the killing in the Middle East.”

Jerry Johnson, president of National Religious Broadcasters, likewise commended Kerry for the announcement.

“Now the United States is morally compelled to act in defense of our brothers and sisters whose lives and cultural heritage are being viciously assaulted simply because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Johnson, former president of Criswell College in Dallas.

A secular humanist organization—the Center for Inquiry—joined religious leaders and human rights activists in applauding Kerry’s declaration.

“The rights to freedom of religion, belief and expression are fundamental and universal and must be protected for all individuals and groups—especially those facing threats or violence,” said Michael DeDora, public policy director for the center.

ISIS is “clearly engaged in the systematic destruction of ancient religious minority communities in Iraq and Syria,” he added.

Come together

“The international community must put aside theological differences and come together to strongly engage in efforts to defeat the Islamic State and aid their victims,” he said. “We applaud Secretary Kerry for doing the right thing and hope his decision prompts greater collaboration and sincere endeavors to end the Islamic States’ genocide against religious minorities.”

In February 2015, the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative produced Edge of Distinction, a report describing the Islamic State’s genocide revealed on a fact-finding trip to the region.

Wilberforce Initiative staff were lead authors for widely signed International Religious Freedom Roundtable letters in October 2015 and February 2016 and advocated within Congress, the State Department, the Obama Administration and across multiple religious denominations and numerous grassroots activists for a declaration of genocide. Through the Ruth Project, Wilberforce Initiative continues to support an education program that helps Syrian refugee children in Lebanon who have fled, in part, the violence of the Islamic State.

Watch: Secretary Kerry’s Remarks on Daesh and Genocide


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