- - Thursday, December 17, 2015

An official U.S. government declaration of genocide could provide a critical lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq seeking refugee status in the face of jihadi violence and persecution, human rights activists told a Capitol Hill briefing this week.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers expressed support for the genocide declaration at the gathering, organized by In Defense of Christians, a 2-year-old nonprofit coalition advocating for human rights of persecuted minorities in the Middle East.

Christian sects and religious minorities such as the Yazidis face brutal persecution, death and enslavement in areas in Iraq and Syria controlled by Islamic State, the terrorist group also known as ISIS and ISIL. Activists say an official finding by the Obama administration that the persecution amounts to genocide would set in motion a number of legal and financial sanctions and give the issue a much greater urgency around the world.

“We have to act in order to raise international consciousness,” said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican who has teamed up with California Democratic Rep. Anna G. Eshoo on a House resolution on the crisis. “Yes, it is complicated, but our first priority is to call it what it is: genocide.”

Mr. Fortenberry held up a photo of 13 Egyptian Copts executed by Islamic State on a Libyan beach earlier this year as he spoke. His bill now has 167 co-sponsors.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican and a leading voice for human rights on Capitol Hill, warned that “any failure by President Obama to recognize the ongoing genocide against Christians would be irresponsible, indefensible and unconscionable.”

“Too often,” Mr. Smith added, “weak words have been used to justify weak action or indifference.”

Gregory Stanton, a specialist in genocide studies at George Mason University, told Wednesday’s session that “the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is the greatest threat to civilization since Nazism and Stalinist and Maoist communism.”

Research has found that such terms as ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity have “never compelled forceful action to this day, whereas the term ‘genocide’ not only demands but compels forceful action,” Mr. Stanton added.

Politico reported this week that the State Department has been debating the genocide label for months for both Christian and non-Christian groups facing persecution from Islamic State. But U.S. governments have traditionally been leery of employing the term, which brings with it legal, political and diplomatic mandates. Even some human rights groups have said that the genocide term can make it harder to reach a negotiated deal to end a crisis.

But many of those who spoke at this week’s hearing cited a new Marist Poll that found 55 percent of Americans believe Islamic State’s atrocities against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East rise to the level of genocide.

By almost 20 points, 55 percent to 36 percent, Americans agree that this targeting of Christians and other religious minorities meets the U.N. definition of genocide, according to the poll released Dec. 15.

That survey comes just over a week after a broad coalition of religious leaders, researchers and scholars sent a letter to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, urging that Christians be included in any determination of genocide made by the U.S. government.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, has introduced a bill directing the State Department to give victims of genocide, such as Yazidis and Chaldean Christians, priority status as refugees, comparing their plight to that of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939.

“This is no religious test,” he said, “since these groups are being targeted for extermination.”

George Mason’s Mr. Stanton took issue with a report by the National Holocaust Museum last month that concluded that because the Chaldean Christians could escape execution by paying a religious minority tax, the term genocide didn’t apply to them.

The problem, he said, was that the tax is set so high that very few people can pay it.

“So what happens, when the people refuse to convert, they are beheaded, or — and this is their favorite punishment — they are crucified.”

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