For many US Christians, ISIS genocide designation is a big deal

Many conservative Christians use the language of martyrdom when describing atrocities of the Islamic State. That deep concern for persecuted Christians led to 'a very American debate' about genocide.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry announced March 17 that he has determined that the Islamic State group is committing genocide against Christians, Shiite Muslims, and Yazidis in Iraq and Syria, as he acted to meet a congressional deadline.

After United States Secretary of State John Kerry took the rare step to call Islamic State atrocities in Iraq and Syria a “genocide” on Thursday, Jerry Johnson saw it as a victory for the many evangelical Christians who have been calling for the use of this term for some time.

And as president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters, an association of conservative Christian media outlets headquartered near Washington, he says his group’s members have been “sounding the alarm” for their audiences of 60 million people a week for a while now.

“I was very happy to see Secretary of State Kerry speak out and speak up – and I think he was good,” says Dr. Johnson, an ethicist. “And I think many Christians and other people of good will have pressured him to do it,” noting that there’s been “strong Evangelical consensus” to label the atrocities of ISIS as a full-on genocide.

Indeed, the Obama administration received rare and in some ways startling praise on Thursday from groups such as the conservative Family Research Council and American Center for Law and Justice, which lauded Kerry’s use of the term “genocide.”

And though Kerry included Yazidis and Shiite Muslims as part of the genocide, for many religious conservatives, their concern and advocacy has been centered around solidarity with their own, a familial concern with persecuted Christians.

“It’s almost a motherhood issue,” says Michael Desch, director of the University of Notre Dame’s International Security Center in South Bend, Ind., noting that many Christians in the United States feel a family responsibility to protect their fellow Christians in the Middle East. “So it’s also become an intensely politicized issue for a lot of religious people – and not just Evangelicals.”

Mounting pressure to act

In February, Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill met in Cuba, the first meeting of the ancient churches’ leaders in a millennium. And they issued a joint call that included an appeal to the international community “to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East.”

Many religious conservatives in the US use the language of martyrdom when describing the atrocities against Christians by the self-described Islamic State, also known as IS or ISIS. The number of Christian martyrs has been rising dramatically the past three years, according to a much-cited report by Open Doors USA, an evangelical nonprofit advocacy group in Santa Ana, Calif., which tracks the persecution of Christians around the world.

More than 7,000 Christians were killed because of their faith last year, Open Doors found, up from 4,344 in 2014 and 2,123 in 2013. But these numbers don’t necessarily include the numbers from Iraq, Syria, or even North Korea, where accurate data are difficult to obtain, the group said.

The deep concern for persecuted Christians has led in many ways to “a very American debate” over the use of term genocide, says Andrea Bartoli, dean of Seton Hall’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations in South Orange, N.J., and an editor for the Journal of Genocide Prevention.

“In Congress and within the American public, there is a pressure to move in that direction,” Dean Bartoli says. “It’s an interesting American response to a problem that is in many ways haunting Americans in a very special way – and there is an accusation against the President Obama that he’s not doing enough.”

Bartoli notes that this is only the second time that a US administration has designated an ongoing conflict as a genocide, after then-Secretary of State Colin Powell said in 2004 that the ethnic cleansing of non-Arabs in the Darfur region of Sudan constituted a genocide.

In the 1990s, the Clinton administration avoided the use of the term in the atrocities during the conflict in what is now widely agreed was a genocide in Rwanda, in which an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

On Monday, however, the House of Representatives, in a unanimous 383-to-0 vote, passed a resolution to condemn ISIS atrocities as genocide. In many ways, scholars say, the Obama administration was compelled to act.     

“This is a monumental step forward in the fight to defend Christians facing beheadings, torture, sexual enslavement, and other atrocities,” wrote Jay Sekolow, chief counsel of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice on Thursday.

He noted that nearly half a million people signed his group’s petition and “spoke out for our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East. And because you spoke out, the Obama Administration acted.”

Shiites and Yazidis, too

Yet even as many religious conservatives, normally vociferous critics of the president, applauded his administration’s actions, their ongoing concern for persecuted Christians in the Middle East comes during a time of heated rhetoric about immigration from Muslim countries.

The Republican front-runner Donald Trump has called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and he has drawn the support of a significant number of Evangelicals.

Last fall, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also contending for the GOP nomination for president, told Fox News the day after the Paris massacre it “is nothing less than lunacy,” to allow thousands of Syrian Muslim refugees into America.

“On the other hand, Christians who are begin targeted for genocide, for persecution, Christians who are being beheaded or crucified, we should be providing safe haven to them. But President Obama refuses to do that,” said Senator Cruz, who has focused much of his campaign appealing to religious conservatives and Evangelicals.     

Scholars, however, note that ISIS, a group with an extremist Sunni Muslim theology, has slaughtered far more Shiite Muslims in the region, a branch of Islam it consideres apostate and even non-Muslim.

“Though the population of Middle Eastern Christians has really been a unifying issue for a lot of religious folks in the United States,” says Professor Desch, “politically, far more Muslims have been killed than Christians, so it would open up a Pandora’s box with people in the Islamic world if the US just focused on [Christians].”  

Johnson, the president of National Religious Broadcasters, however, believes that there has actually been a “double standard” when it comes to concern for Islamic State atrocities.

“If some anti-Muslim group was gathering up the Muslims, putting them in cages, dropping them into the sea, or dousing them gas and lighting them on fire, or lining them up and beheading Muslims simply because they were Muslims, quite frankly, I think our government would have declared this an outrage and a genocide a long time ago,” he says.

Many scholars point out that, in fact, ISIS has indeed committed such atrocities against Shiite Muslims, and especially against Yazidis, who are considered by ISIS to be even worse heretics than Christians and Shiites.  

But for religious conservatives, Kerry’s use of the term “genocide” was a first welcome step in what they hope will lead to further action – even escalated military action – against ISIS atrocities against Christians.

“War-torn Christians in the Middle East finally have a new advocate: the United States of America,” wrote Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, the evangelical advocacy group in Washington. “While families languish in camps and hiding places desperate for the West's help, the Obama administration is finally offering some.”

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