On March 17, the U.S. State Department declared that ISIS – also known as ISIL or “Daesh” – is committing genocide in Iraq and Syria against Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims. The agency’s designation followed similar declarations by the European Union, the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, claimed in his testimony before the commission that there are two types of genocide: physical and spiritual. The religious minorities of Iraq faced both, as they “felt totally abandoned” when the Islamic State were expanding, and were “dying spiritually because they had lost hope,” he said.
The genocide declaration was the U.S. “showing these people that they should not lose hope,” he added.
Although a genocide designation recognizes the victims, there are still millions of internally displaced persons in Iraq and Syria, as well as refugees fleeing the conflict who reside in neighboring countries.
There are 3.4 million internally displaced persons in Iraq and 7.5 million in Syria, Dr. Robert George, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, noted in his testimony. More than 4.8 million registered refugees reside in states neighboring Syria.
The continued geographic existence of the Islamic State poses a threat to religious minorities in the region, he added. “ISIL threatens the very existence of minority religious communities,” as well as Iraq’s stability, he said. “All civil liberties are wiped out wherever ISIL gains control.”
With genocide officially declared, what more can be done by the U.S. to help the beleaguered minorities of Iraq and Syria?
For one, the U.S. must start planning for the liberation from the Islamic State of towns and cities in northern Iraq, Anderson said. It important that the “liberating military force be integrated” with the area and not seen as another occupying force replacing Islamic State, he said.
The U.S. can also ensure that humanitarian aid sent to the Kurdish Regional Government “actually reaches” the displaced persons there, he added, and that genocide victims who fled to Kurdistan have access to schools and jobs there.
Also, genocide survivors cannot be at the “back of the line” in the U.S. refugee resettlement process, he added, noting that for fiscal year 2016, of the 1,366 Syrian refugees set for admittance “fewer than three percent came from the groups targeted for genocide.”
The U.S. must help Christians resettle elsewhere if they want, but also help them stay, he continued, adding that it is in the security interest of the U.S. to keep the Middle Eastern Christian communities intact. Religious pluralism will crumble if they leave, he said.
Lack of religious freedom and pluralism were the “genocidal antecedents” of the Islamic State, he continued, and the U.S. cannot beat IS without solving these problems. Religious minorities cannot have “second-class status,” he said: the “antidote is full equality in law and practice.”
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The State Department must also designate Syria and Iraq as “Countries of Particular Concern” where there are “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” that have been either perpetrated or tolerated by the government, George insisted. To do so would show “fidelity to the truth”, he added.
The designation is made by the State Department to point to the worst violators of religious freedom abroad. It can carry consequences such as adopting economic sanctions against the country until its situation improves.
Just moments before at the hearing, the Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, had defended the State Department’s lack of such a designation in the past for Iraq. The law “does not talk about non-state actors” perpetrating the crimes, just governments, he said.
The current Iraqi government “clearly has made an effort to try and stop Daesh,” he said. “On that basis in past years, the determination was made that it did not rise to that level.” He added that the agency will make “new determinations” shortly.
George also insisted that the U.S. could make a goal of resettling 100,000 Syrian refugees within its borders, with the “strictest vetting” and a “prioritization on vulnerability,” such as candidates who were abused, enslaved, or tortured. The. U.S. should also allocate sufficient resources to the agencies responsible for the vetting of refugees, he said.
“The public needs to support this,” he said, but they won’t if they think national security will be compromised in the process. “It’s not that they’re cruel, it’s not that they lack compassion. They have legitimate concerns about security,” he admitted. “We believe those concerns can be met.”