Genocide Resolution needs congressional attention

Signatures. It needs signatures on the bottom line.

It’s more than words on paper, but let’s start with the words.

Members of Congress introduced a resolution on Thursday to label the atrocities committed by the Islamic State against Christians and other religious minorities “genocide.”

“Christians in Iraq and Syria are hanging on in the face of the Islamic State’s barbarous onslaught. This is genocide,” stated Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who helped introduce the resolution. Fortenberry is co-chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus.

“The international community must confront the scandalous silence about their plight. Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities have every right to remain in their ancestral homelands,” he continued.

Six representatives — three Democrats and three Republicans — introduced the bipartisan resolution. On Thursday, advocates with the non-partisan group In Defense of Christians met with more than 250 congressional offices, asking them to support the resolution.

Quoting from the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the document states that the atrocities committed against Christians and the other religious minorities in the Middle East meet the convention’s definition of genocide.

That’s hugely important, say experts I’ve spoken with on this particular topic on radio in the past month. Call it what it is, name it, and especially declare that it is genocide, says Princeton Professor Robert George, Chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. And Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. And Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, Co-Chair of the Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus and author of this Resolution.

The resolution also called for governments to stop the atrocities and for U.N. member states to sign on to a “concurrent resolution” and “with an urgent appeal to the Arab states that wish to uphold religious freedom, tolerance and justice.” The parties must also help set up “domestic, regional and international tribunals to punish those responsible for the ongoing crimes.”

Skeptics who think Congress pushes a lot of paper and gets little done should pay attention to this. It carries weight, and can have an impact.

USCIRF Chief Robert George told me this will task Congress with a different mission, once the language of ‘genocide’ is used officially. Renowned international human rights advocate Dr. Thomas Farr told me that passing a resolution in Congress requires action by the U.S. government, “by treaty and by law”. It “creates a gateway” for the United States to provide humanitarian aid, protection and faster refugee processing for victims of the atrocities, calling them what they are, ‘crimes against humanity’, said Cong. Fortenberry, one of the leaders helping In Defense of Christians expand and extend the campaign of awareness and relief in a network of global advocacy and activism.

Along with human rights hero Congressman Frank Wolf, Dr. Farr has long passionately worked for religious freedom and protection of minorities from persecution and now, genocide. Here’s the letter both collaborated on to ask President Obama to call what is happening what it is, genocide.

We write as an informal and diverse group of non-governmental organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates to express our grave concern for religious minorities, among them Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims, at the hands of the Islamic State. We urge you to formally declare the systematic destruction of these ancient communities a genocide.

Mounting evidence indisputably shows the Islamic State’s ongoing genocidal campaign in the Middle East through its attempts to create a global caliphate devoid of religious freedom and diversity. For more than a year, the news headlines have been replete with stories of almost unimaginable human suffering caused by the Islamic State. Religious minorities in these lands, among them the ancient Christian, Yezidi and Shia Muslim communities, have suffered grave injustices: displacement, forced conversion, kidnapping, rape and death…

A report released in March from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights on the human rights situation in Iraq states, “It is reasonable to conclude that some of these incidents, considering the overall information, may constitute genocide.” Furthermore, the report calls for the Security Council “to remain seized of and address, in the strongest terms, information that points to genocide.” It is imperative that the United States government and the global community universally acknowledge this issue as such.

As opposed to previous such instances in modern history, there has been no attempt by the Islamic State to conceal its actions. On the contrary, the group shamelessly broadcasts decapitations, crucifixions, forced drownings and other horrors with the sole purpose of spreading its message of destruction and recruiting more agents to the ranks of its diabolical insurgency. Under the Islamic State, religious minorities now face an existential crisis and live on the edge of extinction in the lands that many have inhabited since antiquity. These communities will continue on a trajectory of tragic and precipitous decline into eventual non existence without swift moral leadership on behalf of the administration and the international community.

(Emphasis added.)

It is our belief that officially declaring and subsequently halting this genocide and its spread is a matter of vital moral and strategic importance for the United States, the international community, and the overall state of religious freedom around the world. Perhaps equally as important, such a declaration will give a stronger voice to the long suffering victims while furthering and sharpening ideological engagement against those currently at the forefront of this campaign.

We humbly request that your office publicly acknowledge and denounce the Islamic State’s actions as genocide and act with all due haste to ensure that this ongoing, abominable crime is halted, prevented and punished and that the religious freedom and human dignity of all people currently suffering under the Islamic State are allowed to flourish.

Meanwhile

The Islamist genocide — and there can be no doubt that it is genocide, despite world silence – of the Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans, and other defenseless ethno-religious minorities of Syria and Iraq continues. The killing of these peoples is deliberate and brutal and is rooted in religious hatred of the “infidel.” It is meted out in sudden violent executions, mass deportations, and the gradual, methodical destruction of their civilizations. Washington is blind to this genocide that occurs alongside, but is separate from, a sectarian Muslim power struggle. It has failed to defend them militarily. Now it is failing to provide humanitarian help in the only manner left: resettling the survivors out of harm’s way, in countries where they will be able to rebuild their families and preserve their unique ancient cultures without fear. Rescue is the very minimum we can do to help these victims of genocide.

Read it and weep.

Nina Shea concludes, for now, with this:

Dakhil says the Yazidis feel abandoned by Washington and the world. Iraqi Christian and Mandean representatives have recently said the same to me. Many of these peoples are desperate to leave the region. They do not want to leave to seek economic opportunities, or even to escape the wartime deprivations, but to save their lives and the lives of their children. They are not being targeted because they are political dissidents or bear arms in conflict. They are targeted solely for religious reasons. This is genocide and we are morally and legally bound to help them. A military resolution to this crisis will be too late for these peoples. Catholic priest Father Douglas Bazi, the director of the renowned Mar Elias refugee encampment for Iraqi Christians in Erbil, tells me: “Help us live. Help us leave.” They need visas. The West can easily provide them, and it must.

While we wait for the US president to respond, the UK Prime Minister got engaged.

David Cameron has given his support to a new report into the persecution of Christians around the world.

In a statement read out at the launch of Aid to the Church in Need’s ‘Persecuted and Forgotten? A report on Christians oppressed for their faith 2013-15? at the House of Lords today, the Prime Minister said that, “Every day in countries across the world, Christians are systematically discriminated against, exploited and even driven from their homes because of their faith.”

“No believer should have to live in fear, and this is why (the British) Government is committed to promoting religious freedom and tolerance at home and around the world,” he added.

“It is also why the work of organisations such as Aid to the Church in Need is so crucial. This report serves as a voice for the voiceless, from their prison cells and the places far from home where they have sought refuge. Now is not the time for silence. We must stand together and fight for a world where no one is persecuted because of what they believe.”

According to the report, Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq “possibly within five years” unless the international community offer substantial assistance to the persecuted faithful there.

This is a global alert.

The report features a foreword by Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, whose city has been destroyed by fighting.

In it he wrote: “My own cathedral has been bombed six times and is now unusable. My home has also been hit more than 10 times. We are facing the rage of an extremist jihad; we may disappear soon. In both Syria and Iraq, Christian communities – along with other vulnerable minorities – are defenceless against assaults by Daesh (ISIS). We are the prime target of the so-called caliphate’s religious cleansing campaign.”

This isn’t another news story to shake our heads at and say ‘that’s too bad, someone ought to do something.’ This is a coalition of international leaders trying to do something.

Recently, the In Defense of Christians (IDC) organization presented Dr. Thomas Farr with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his tireless work in human rights. Two international leading officials of IDC presented Dr. Farr with a crucifix from a church in Mosul, Iraq to be held in safe-keeping until it could be returned upon the restoration of Christianity in the region.

I only learned that after he last spoke with me, recently, on radio. It gave even more gravity to his urgent appeal for citizens in the US to call on their Members of Congress, the men and women people elected to serve there, to support two pieces of urgent legislation in the House of Representatives.

H.R. 1150:

…amending the International Religious Freedom Act to give Ambassador Saperstein the status that other ambassadors at large at the Department of State enjoy, the authority to develop an interagency strategy to protect global religious freedom, and the resources he needs to implement that strategy. It would also mandate training for all foreign service officers, deputy chiefs of mission, and country ambassadors. This training would ensure that our diplomats fully understand and can effectively defend the free expression of religion worldwide, the enduring value of religious freedom and its relationship to national security, and how to advance the cause of religious liberty in our foreign policy. (emphasis added)

And H.R 75 (down the list of ‘Whereas’ specifications):

Whereas, on July 10, 2015, Pope Francis, Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, declared that Middle Eastern Christians are facing genocide, a reality that must be ‘‘denounced’’ and that ‘‘In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocideand I stress the word genocide—is taking place, and it must end.’’ (emphasis added)

The people are calling on government, purported and in fact elected to be the leaders of the free world, to DO something, for crying out loud.

And if they lack ideas, many suggestions are contained therein.

International religious freedom and national security

Last week, a congressional oversight committee hearing was held to check on government compliance with the International Religious Freedom Law. It was virtually unprecedented.

Congress hasn’t been paying attention. Now that they did, the press wasn’t paying attention.

That law was passed 16 years ago, but this is the first time Congress has checked on whether the State Department is implementing it. Given what has happened in the world with increasing global crises involving religious extremism and religious persecution, one wonders whether anyone has wondered about this law. The answer is yes, and Thomas Farr. He has been asking questions for years. Because he knows international religious freedom is an issue of national security, besides being a human rights issue.

Here’s his latest.

I address three questions: First, given the status of religious freedom in the world, how has the current administration implemented IRFA during its approximately six years in office? Second, how can US IRF policy be employed to advance American national security? Third, the president has nominated Rabbi David Saperstein as the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

(The fact that the job of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom went vacant from October 2013 to late July 2014 when Rabbi Saperstein was finally nominated to it, is itself egregious. But wait…Saperstein has only been nominated.)

Farr continues:

How can Rabbi Saperstein be empowered to succeed in a field where others have had precious little success? In particular, what can the Congress do?

He lets that question dangle long enough to extend credit where it’s due to those inside the bureaucratic apparatus who are committed to doing what they can for religious freedom around the world through assorted programs.

Unfortunately, their work is compartmentalized, marginalized, and isolated within the State Department. The course at FSI is voluntary and, in any case, does not train diplomats in how to promote religious freedom. Funding levels are tiny and are not controlled by the person responsible for US policy—the IRF Ambassador. The State Department’s working group on religion and foreign policy is made up of civil society representatives; we need a working group on international religious freedom made up of senior U.S. foreign policy officials.

This is all unacceptable.

The key point, however, is that each of these efforts is ad hoc. None is part of an integrated strategy to advance international religious freedom. Such a strategy has not existed for the five years and nine months of this president’s tenure, and it does not exist today.

As a consequence, the United States has had virtually no impact on the global rise of religious persecution. While American diplomats have helped in individual cases, we have had no comprehensive policy in place to help the millions who suffer because of their faith.

Emphasis added. That’s a serious statement, the revelation of a grave fault line.

Equally important, we have missed opportunities to employ IRF policy as a means of undermining the development of violent religious extremism, encouraging economic growth, and helping struggling democracies to stabilize.

The evidence for this stark assessment is compelling. When testifying before this committee in June of last year, I could not identify a single country in the world where the United States under this administration has advanced religious freedom or reduced religious persecution. That remains true today. Meanwhile, we have seen an explosion of violent Islamist extremism, and the continuing decline of struggling democracies in highly religious societies such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Egypt.

So, totally understating the obvious, Farr says international religious freedom is not a priority for the Obama administration.

The president’s nominee, Rabbi Saperstein, should be confirmed immediately. But when he steps into the job, the post of Ambassador at Large will have been vacant for almost a full year since the departure of the previous incumbent, and vacant for over half the tenure of this president.

Consider that for a moment, together with Farr’s observations about the US having no plan, and no impact on advancing religious freedom or reducing religious persecution. That it’s “not a priority” for this administration is acknowledging that they didn’t just overlook it, they put it aside.

Compare the administration’s treatment of this position with another similar job: that of Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues. Someone has been in that position for virtually the entire tenure of this administration. Why? Because women’s issues are a priority, as they should be. On the other hand, it is difficult to conclude that the office of the IRF Ambassador at Large, or the issue it represents, is perceived as important at the State Department.

To cite but one example: if you peruse the Department’s listing of “Assistant Secretaries and Other Senior Officials” on its website you will find Coordinators, Special Advisors, and Special Envoys for a host of issues, including Global Food Security, Global AIDs, Global Youth Issues, the Arctic, Muslim Communities, the Organization of Islamic States, and many others.

But you will not find listed the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom.

The reason for that omission is clear. If religious freedom is not a priority for the administration, there is little reason to label that Ambassador a “senior” official with an important portfolio. The sad fact is that he is not considered senior, nor his job of any real significance, by this State Department or this president.

It’s more than a sad fact, worse. It’s egregious, to repeat.

I would note that the IRFA established this Ambassador as a “principal advisor to the President and Secretary of State” on religious freedom abroad. Whatever Congress intended that phrase to mean, under this administration it has meant very little.

You can be sure that the Department of State’s marginalization of the Ambassador and U.S. international religious policy is not lost on America’s diplomats, who fully understand the low priority that policy has been given. Nor is it lost on foreign governments and those who persecute on the basis of religion.

Here’s why this issue is so important, no matter what your beliefs.

There are two powerful reasons for a coordinated, comprehensive American strategy to advance religious freedom. The first is a moral imperative.

Last year in Rome, Iraqi Patriarch of the Chaldeans, Archbishop Louis Raphael Sako, said something that still haunts me: “If they kill us all, will you do something then?” We have a responsibility to that man, and to the others of Iraq and Syria—Christian, Yazidi, and Muslim alike—who are fending for, or fleeing for, their lives.

Patriarch Sako said something else. The title of his speech was: “What Happens to the Middle East if Christians Flee?” The answer was twofold: terrible suffering for the Christians, but also increased instability and harm to the societies themselves.

Yes, that means everyone, in a community with any diversity.

Here lies the second reason for a coordinated, comprehensive US strategy on religious freedom. Religious freedom is not simply a “nice to have” human right, consisting mainly of the right not to be tortured or killed, or a right to private worship. It is a fundamental human right that has distinct and inevitable public dimensions. As such it is utterly necessary, not only for individual human flourishing but for the success of any state—especially highly religious nations like Iraq, Pakistan, or Egypt.

Ample research demonstrates what common sense suggests: democracies cannot consolidate without religious freedom. Economies cannot develop without religious freedom. And—perhaps most important for American national security—religious freedom is a counter to religion-based terrorism.

Farr lays out a plan of action and details a strategy the president should take up now.

It is no accident that ISIS announced itself to the world by its efforts to eradicate Yazidis and Christians. This vicious group defines itself by its religious intolerance. And now we see that ISIS poses a serious and direct security threat to the United States. Surely we can learn from our past neglect and failure that religious freedom can contribute to the long-term solution. Military action is now necessary to defeat ISIS. But integrating religious freedom into our overall strategy can reduce the need for future military action. At a fraction of the cost, and without loss of blood, a diplomatic counter-terrorism offensive can increase American national security.

Robert George, immediate past chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), has been saying this for months. In September he said this:

Wherever violent religious extremist groups have held sway, be it central Somalia or elsewhere, they have penetrated every nook and cranny of human endeavor, imposing their will on families and communities in horrific ways. In many instances, they have banned routine activities such as listening to music and watching television. They have crushed all forms of religious expression other than their own, even seeking to destroy historic Islamic religious sites. They have imposed barbaric punishments on dissenters, from floggings and stonings to beheadings and amputations.

As a result, especially in places where these forces operate, people want an alternative: They want the right to honor their own beliefs and act peacefully on them. And as a number of scholars in recent years have shown, societies where this right to religious freedom is recognized and protected are more peaceful, prosperous, and free of destabilizing terror…

In other words, in a world where religion matters, a key answer to violent religious extremism in the post-9/11 era is for governments to act in such ways to affirm and protect freedom of religion. It is not only a moral imperative – it is a practical necessity, empowering people everywhere to choose a better way.

As Farr concluded:

Such changes will not work overnight. But without steps like this, and without the commitment of the president, the Secretary of State, and the Congress to support the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the policy he leads, the remaining Christians and other minorities of the Middle East will face violent persecution into the indefinite future. And the United States will face a permanent threat from the ever spreading phenomenon of violent Islamist extremism. For all these reasons, I urge you to act.