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We Must Act: Time Is Running Out to Stop the Christian Genocide in Iraq and Syria

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When I went to Israel for the first time in the summer of 2014, I visited the Museum of the Bible. Inside I found a Bible from 9th Century Mosul, Iraq, carefully protected behind glass walls. The wood bound Bible’s handwritten and delicate pages, with a Syriac translation of the Gospels, struck me more than the rest of all the history in the museum as the Islamic State continued its march across Iraq, destroying centuries-old Christian sites and executing an entire religious population along the way.

According to a study released last year by the charity Aid to the Church in Need, Christians will be extinct in Iraq and Syria within five years. Today, there are fewer than 250,000 in the region, a fraction of the previous population of 1.5 million. This is genocide and it’s far past time the Obama administration and the State Department properly classify it as such. 

By March 14, the State Department is expected to make an official determination about genocide classification for what ISIS is doing to Christians in the Middle East. A letter has been submitted on behalf of a number of Assyrian and Iraqi Christian relief organizations to Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama, laying out the legal case for a genocide classification. For political reasons, the administration has been hesitant to use the word. Just last week White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged the targeting of Christians by ISIS, but refused to classifying it as genocide. 

"My understanding is the use of that word [genocide] involves a very specific legal determination that has, at this point, not been reached. But we've been quite candid and direct, exactly, about how -- how ISIL's tactics are worthy of the kind of international, robust response that the international community is leading. And those tactics include a willingness to target religious minorities, including Christians," Earnest said.


But the legal determination has in fact been reached, the evidence is clear, and it's far past time for the White House to accept the brutal reality of what is happening.

“As many governments, legislative bodies, non-governmental organizations, and world leaders have already concluded, the available evidence demonstrates that ISIS’s actions rise to the level of genocide. Furthermore, we understand that recent information received from on-the-ground interviews in the region and other sources establishes without question that ISIS is committing genocide and makes clear that claims that it is offering jizya or dhimmi status are a publicity stunt or extortion payments that pervert these classical terms,” states the letter written by Andrews Kurths LPP and submitted on behalf of The Philos Project, The American Mesopotamian Organization, The Assyrian Aid Society of America and The Iraqi Christian Relief Council.

“The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (“Genocide Convention”) prohibits the intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic or religious group by, inter alia, killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction,” the letter continues. “Publicly available information strongly suggests that ISIS is subjecting Assyrian and other Iraqi and Syrian Christians living in areas under the control of ISIS to genocidal conditions. ISIS purportedly offers the Assyrian Christians three options: (1) convert to Islam, (2) assume dhimmi status and pay an associated jizya tax, or (3) leave the territory. The facts suggest that, in reality, there is no choice. Those who refuse or are otherwise unable to comply are executed, and in many instances the option of paying the jizya tax is not made available. The evidence therefore suggests that the jizya tax is not a real option and may be just a pretext to justify ISIS’s atrocities. That ISIS purports to permit Assyrian Christians to pay a jizya tax to avoid conversion, execution, or displacement does not preclude a finding that ISIS’s persecution of such Christians violates the Genocide Convention.”


What’s in a word? And why is a genocide classification so important? When a situation is officially categorized as genocide there are a series of actions that immediately come into play to stop it. Considering the short extinction timeline for Christians in this region of the Middle East, there is no time to waste.

This isn’t a partisan issue. House Speaker Paul Ryan, hundreds of House members, Pope Francis, Hillary Clinton and others have called for an official genocide declaration. Acknowledging this genocide will allow the United States and the international community to take concrete steps to end it.

ISIS's targeting and execution of Christians is horrific and something we haven’t seen in generations. History will not look kindly upon those who stood by as an entire religious population was wiped out of their centuries-old homes, especially if the reason lies in short term politics. It’s far past time for the Obama administration to call the actions of ISIS against Christians genocide in order to stop it before it’s too late.

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