U.S. House of Representatives, State Dept. acknowledge genocide

Finally. This is a big deal.

After long, concerted efforts by individuals in Congress, human rights experts, humanitarian relief organizations, patriarchs and prelates, clergy and coalitions of citizens united with them, the U.S. made major advances this week toward stopping the atrocities ISIS has been committing against Christians and other religious minorities and getting aid and relief to those victims. The trigger to ratchet up new and urgent actions was twofold: passage of the Genocide Resolution in Congress, and acknowledgement by the State Department that what has been called persecution of Christians and other religious minorities actually constituted genocide.

Monday, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the Genocide Resolution, 393-0.

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) today made the following statement after the United States House of Representatives unanimously passed his genocide resolution with a vote of 393-0. In a sign of overwhelming bipartisan unity, the resolution, H. Con. Res. 75, names and decries the ISIS violence against Christians, Yezidis, and other ethnic and religious minorities as “genocide.” By law, the State Department must make a genocide determination by March 17.

“It is my sincere hope that this trans-partisan resolution will further compel the State Department to join the building international consensus in calling the horrific ISIS violence against Christians, Yezidis, and others by its proper name: ‘genocide,’” Fortenberry said.

A rapidly expanding international coalition has recognized that ISIS is committing genocide. The European Parliament, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Pope Francis, and presidential candidates in both parties, among many others, are standing in solidarity to name and decry this genocide.

“At a time of deep political division in our nation,” Fortenberry continued, “the House has spoken with one voice to properly recognize and condemn this genocide—a threat to civilization itself. The genocide resolution elevates international consciousness and confronts the scandal of silence and indifference about ISIS’ targeted and systematic destruction of these endangered communities. A bipartisan and ecumenical alliance has formed to confront ISIS’ barbaric onslaught.”

Wednesday the 16th, Cong. Fortenberry spoke with me on radio about this vote, and the news he had just received that Secretary of State John Kerry would need more time to investigate the evidence, mystifying to those of us who knew that a joint effort by In Defense of Christians and the Knights of Columbus produced a nearly 300 page report specifically for Sec. Kerry and the State Dept. detailing that evidence. Outcries followed.

Hudson Institute’s renowned religious freedom activist Nina Shea published more questions about why it was taking State so long to deliberate something so obvious to all.

So did social commentator and author Kirsten Powers, in this USA Today piece.

ABC News reported that the House “overwhelmingly approved” the genocide resolution with “heavy bipartisan support”, but also that “the Obama administration officials have cautioned that a legal review is still under way and said it is likely Kerry will not meet Thursday’s deadline.”

And then, he did. Something happened to inspire or compel Secretary Kerry to make a surprise public announcement, Thursday morning.

Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that ISIS has been committing genocide against religious minorities in the Middle East — just the second time the executive branch has used the term in relation to an ongoing conflict.

The formal designation comes days after the House passed a nonbinding resolution by a 393-0 vote condemning ISIS atrocities as genocide.

“Daesh is genocidal by self proclamation, by ideology and by actions,” Kerry said in a televised address, using another name for the Sunni militant group [ISIS]. “We must recognize what Daesh is doing to its victims.”

“Naming these crimes is important but what is essential is to stop them,” he added.

Nina Shea discussed Kerry’s surprise announcement with me on radio Thursday, and the great need for this designation because of the scope of the atrocities. About an hour later, she posted this article giving credit and gratitude where it’s due.

History was made today. Secretary of State John Kerry officially recognized that ISIS is waging genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shiites in the areas under its control. This is only the second time the U.S. government has condemned an ongoing genocide: In 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell designated what was going in Darfur as genocide. And today’s declaration, as I wrote yesterday, almost didn’t happen — owing to resistance from some quarters.

Kerry’s announcement was a surprise, one that defied deliberately lowered expectations. There was a State Department notice just yesterday that any such designation required longer deliberation and wouldn’t be made in time to meet the March 17 congressionally mandated deadline. But at 9 a.m. Eastern, Secretary of State Kerry took to the podium and asserted: “In my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions — in what it says, what it believes, and what it does.”

This official American genocide designation is a critically important step. Genocide is internationally recognized as the most heinous human-rights offense. Legally, it is known as the “crime of crimes.” And while the Genocide Convention does not prescribe specific action to “prevent and protect” against genocide, the conscience does.

This designation will not only lift the morale of these shattered religious groups, it also has the potential of serving justice through the prosecution of those who aid and abet ISIS as fighters, cyber recruiters, financiers, arms suppliers, and artifact smugglers.

Military action is also important. Kerry discussed military measures that would help these victims of ISIS: “We are preparing for future efforts to liberate occupied territory — with an eye to the protection of minority communities. In particular, the liberation of Mosul, of Nineveh province in Iraq, and parts of Syria that are currently occupied by Daesh, and that will decide whether there is still a future for minority communities in this part of the Middle East. For those communities, the stakes in this campaign are utterly existential.”

Congressman Fortenberry told me what he’s been saying to everyone listening lately, that this is a threat to civilization itself. As of today, the U.S. has risen to join a growing international coalition of voices and forces that can, finally, do something to stop the spread of that threat, reverse it, and protect innocent people and the existence of whole populations. What can be done is newly on the table. What will be done comes next.

Reports from the front with ISIS: “Death has become a way of life here.”

Why does this continue? Why hasn’t ISIS been stopped, long ago? Why are they advancing?

NBC News Richard Engel addresses the root problem in this report.

He’s reporting on the situation on the ground where the US president claims to be ‘partnering‘ with forces to drive back ISIS.

Engel said the U.S. doesn’t exactly have an ideal partner on the ground — not even in the Iraqi Security Forces, and certainly not in Syria. The Iraqi army has been heavily depleted over the past few months and reconstituted with Iranian advisers and ground forces. And many Sunni villagers, he says, are “afraid” of the Iraqi army.

“They don’t want the Iraqi army to come into their villages. So we talk about a partner on the ground that we are going to team up with to rid Iraq of ISIS. Well, that partner on the ground, in many cases, is a reason that many people support ISIS in this country.”

And he continues to speak out from the front line, calling attention to the Kurds who desperately need help from the ‘international community.’ Because they need relief and support.

But what the Kurdish fighters lack in equipment, they make up for in fighting spirit. After ISIS swept violently into Iraq in June, the Kurds regrouped and have managed to take back much of the ground they lost. The men here say they are fighting for their homeland and for their families.

“We will stand here and fight for as long as we have to,” Capt. Massud Aziz Osman said. “We are fighting against everyone’s enemy.”

Like many here, Osman, a father of four, says that the Kurds have been left to fight alone, abandoned by the Iraqi army and offered only limited support by the U.S. and its allies.

“ISIS is the common enemy,” he says, “and anyone who isn’t here fighting them is without a god or a faith.”

But Kurdish officials say determination alone may not be enough to see this battle through. They have recently become more vocal — calling for increased aid from the international coalition.

I’ve had a number of guests on radio in recent weeks, examining this crisis from every angle more days than not. They are deeply and wholly committed to facing, naming, confronting and eliminating the greatest existential threat of our time.

Former Congressman Frank Wolf co-founded ‘The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative‘, an actively committed, on the ground, front line organization giving voice to leaders of Christian leaders representing thousands of the faithful, which should be tenfold that number. They’re doing everything in their power to call for action, policy changes and humanitarian assistance to ensure freedom, protection and human dignity for Christians threatened by extinction in the ancient land of their birth. A group  of religious leaders they recently visited in Iraq lamented:

This is not just the end of Christianity but the end of our ethnicity who have lived here for thousands of years. We believe this is genocide.

They continued: We do not have opportunities for education. We do not have opportunities for work. We do not have opportunities for healthcare. What is left for us?

Consider the brutal reality, not reported in most media:

The Islamic State’s desecration and destruction of historic sites of religious and cultural heritage is unprecedented in Iraq. In Mosul, IS has turned an 800-year-old house of worship into a place of torture. Another church in Mosul that has existed for 150 years is being utilized as a prison, and yet still another is serving as a weapons storehouse.

All of the religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq face this deplorable reality. Yezidis note that this is the 73rd intentional targeting of their community. What has changed with the Islamic State is the speed and scope by which these religious and ethnic communities are being decimated. The Nineveh Plains had been one of the last relatively safe havens for Christians, Yezidis, Shabak, Turkmen and other minority groups, but with the fall of Mosul and surrounding areas in the summer of 2014, Iraq’s minorities have no place to go and are nearing the precipice of total disappearance.

This is appalling, a shock to the senses, a call to action. Something frequent guest Nina Shea has been doing for a long time, reporting on the raw reality and calling for what must be done.

President Obama must acknowledge that ISIS has religious objectives, that its actions are not simply random acts of “extreme violence,” and that ISIS aims to make the region – and beyond– pure for Islam. Maybe then, America’s generals would recognize that Christian, as well as Yizidi, communities are prime targets for ISIS, that Kurdish militias need to be equipped and pressed to protect them and air strikes need to be more seriously deployed.

And how has the president responded?

With at least an apparently distinct lack of gravity and sense severity of the threat and necessary response.

In an interview on foreign policy, president Obama said something that prompted the questioner to ask how he thought the media covers terrorism, and whether they sometimes overstate the level of alarm people should have about terrorism. The president’s response was ‘Absolutely. If it bleeds, it leads.’

It’s bleeding, Mr. President. It’s time to lead.

Free Asia Bibi

And countless others she personifies.

Whoever originally uttered the much misattributed statement that the death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic, it’s been often cited and reapplied for good reason. It fits the Twentieth Century and first decade of the Twenty-First.

So personalizing the threat to one endangered, vulnerable, persecuted woman, man or child personalizes and humanizes the ongoing daily, hourly plight of countless millions of others we don’t see and easily forget.

Nina Shea, Nina Director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, has been a frequent guest on my radio show for her exhaustive work in protecting endangered religious minorities around the world. She’s one of the forces behind Persecution Report. Look it over, read it and weep. It’s so much worse even than it appears there, because the administrators are too busy fighting to save lives to update a website.

It was from Nina that I first learned of Asia Bibi. Here’s an update she published.

On October 16, for the first time, an appeals court affirmed a death sentence for blasphemy meted out to a woman. A Christian mother of five, Asia Bibi was arrested in 2009 after fellow field hands complained that, during a dispute, she had insulted the prophet of Islam. No evidence was produced, because to repeat blasphemy is blasphemous. Similarly, anyone who defends an accused blasphemer risks being labeled a blasphemer; two officials who made appeals on Bibi’s behalf—Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, and Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities affairs—were assassinated in 2011. Bibi has one last legal recourse, an appeal to the federal Supreme Court, but now no public official dares speak up for her—or for any other blasphemy defendant.

Accusations of blasphemy are brought disproportionately against Pakistan’s Christians, some 2 percent of the population. Intent is not an element of the crime, and recent years have seen cases brought against illiterate, mentally disabled, and teenage Christians. Each case seems to heighten the sensitivities of the extremists and further fracture society. The flimsiest rumor of a Koran burning can spark hysteria ending in riots against entire Christian communities. Lahore’s St. Joseph Colony was torched last year in such a pogrom.

The American Center for Law and Justice relentlessly drove a social media campaign to save Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani’s life, which probably did, in the end. They have pursued the same aggressive campaign of awareness and engagement for Pastor Saeed Abedini (who is American, by the way) and Asia Bibi.

A committed Christian. A mother of five. A loving wife. A servant of all.

But will she also be a martyr?

That’s Asia Bibi. She’s been sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s Shariah blasphemy law. She was targeted as a member of the sole Christian family in her small Pakistani village. She was falsely accused of “blasphemy” – for supposedly speaking against the prophet Muhammad.

Last week an appeals court in Lahore, Pakistan upheld her execution sentence.

Here’s how this valiant Christian woman describes her plight, in her own words:

I’m the victim of a cruel, collective injustice.

I’ve been locked up, handcuffed and chained, banished from the world and waiting to die. I don’t know how long I’ve got left to live. Every time my cell door opens my heart beats faster. My life is in God’s hands and I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. It’s a brutal, cruel existence. But I am innocent. I’m guilty only of being presumed guilty. I’m starting to wonder whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.

But though I’m kept in a tiny, windowless cell, I want my voice and my anger to be heard. I want the whole world to know that I’m going to be hanged for helping my neighbor. I’m guilty of having shown someone sympathy. What did I do wrong? I drank water from a well belonging to Muslim women, using “their” cup, in the burning heat of the midday sun…

It’s as simple and devastating as that. For five years, she’s been imprisoned on death row over a cup of water. But what’s really at issue here is her Christian faith.

To her radical Islamic community and under Shariah law in Pakistan, her Christian faith is her “crime.” It’s her death sentence.

Her family is in hiding, fearing for their lives. In addition to the death sentence, Asia Bibi has a price on her head. A radical cleric has implored the Taliban to carry out her execution sentence before the Pakistani government does. Two Pakistani government officials who have spoken out on her behalf are now dead, murdered in cold blood for standing up for her human rights.

This atrocity cannot stand. No one – anywhere – should ever be put to death because of their religious beliefs.

All of us who have the freedom to speak out have the responsibility to speak out. It’s incumbent upon all of us to demand her freedom.

Though she has one final appeal at Pakistan’s Supreme Court, it is often public pressure and not a legal argument that wins freedom in these cases.

Asia Bibi has made a final plea to the ‘international community’ we speak of so often but specify and scrutinize so little. Who are ‘they’ and why aren’t ‘they’ doing more in these cases? This case provides another chance to engage the radical forces behind these crimes against humanity.

From her prison cell in Multan, Asia Bibi has become a symbol of the struggle for religious freedom in the world.

With social media, blogs and Facebook posts and Twitter hashtags, elite media notwithstanding, her rescue should be a viral story. For crying out loud, it’s well past time to use all these means of global communication to spread awareness and demand human rights be upheld. Not knowing is not an excuse anymore.