For five months, the State Department has indicated that Iraq’s Yazidi community should be declared a target of ISIS genocide but meanwhile has been less sure about ISIS’s intentions toward Middle East Christians. Tomorrow is Secretary John Kerry’s congressional deadline for officially determining whether Christians, along with the Yazidis and possibly others, face genocide by ISIS. Insisting that department lawyers need a little more time to struggle with the evidence, Kerry promises his decision soon, if not this week.
This shouldn’t be a hard case. Few groups have publicized their brutality toward Christians in real time and in technicolor as ISIS has. Christians, among others, have been declared genocide victims by Pope Francis, the EU Parliament, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the U.S. House of Representatives, in a bipartisan, unanimous vote on March 14, in the heat of election season.
For months, State officials claimed they lacked facts about the Christians and then did nothing about it. Rather than follow the precedent of Secretary Colin Powell, who collected evidence for determining genocide in Darfur, Kerry refrained from dispatching fact finders in the case of the Middle Eastern Christians. When some 30 Christian leaders wrote on December 4 to request an opportunity to brief Kerry, he failed to answer. With only a month remaining until its March deadline, State Department officials asked the Knights of Columbus, which had been running TV spots on the Christian genocide, to prepare a written report of the facts. Before it was even completed, those same officials, meeting with Iraqi Chaldean Catholic leaders, told them that a genocide determination for Iraqi Christians was not in the offing. State suggested that terms such as “persecution,” “ethnic cleansing,” or “crimes against humanity” — terms that carry less moral and legal weight — be used instead.
When some 30 Christian leaders wrote to request an opportunity to brief Kerry, he failed to answer.
Genocide is a crime of intent, and State Department officials, overlooking such ISIS declarations as “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” have had trouble determining whether ISIS aims to destroy all or part of the Christian communities in its territory and is thereby committing genocide as defined in the United Nations’ Genocide Convention. State’s troubles may be explained in part by its reliance on a 30-page trip report of the Holocaust Museum’s office of genocide prevention. That report finds that ISIS, far from intending to destroy Iraqi and Syrian Christian communities, respects them as “People of the Book,” and seeks to peacefully coexist them.
The report takes at face value ISIS’s claims of a jizya option, as does the State Department in its annual religious-freedom report for 2015. The museum report uncritically asserts that “IS specifically notes that its treatment of the Yezidis differs from its treatment of ahl al kitab, the ‘people of the book,’ Christians and Jews, who had the option of paying the jizya (tax) to avoid conversion or death.”
The museum report repeats such ISIS claims and lets them stand unchallenged. Purporting to quote ISIS fighters on why they reject a Mosul Christian’s attempt to stay and pay the jizya — “we wanted to meet with your priests and they said no” — the report neglects to give the Church’s side of the story. It gives the impression that ISIS gave Iraq’s Christians a reasonable deal but that Christian leaders refused it and therefore have themselves to blame.
That conclusion is reinforced in another passage in the museum report: “It is unknown whether Christians who were given the option to pay a jizya or leave, instead of convert or face death, would still be given this option should they return now.” This speculation, of course, is preposterous. ISIS doesn’t respect Christians. It beheads or enslaves them. The museum report is compromised by its failure ever to present the viewpoint of Christian leaders.
In fact, Mosul clergy who had direct engagement with ISIS in July 2014 state that there was no serious option for Nineveh’s Christians to pay jizya to avoid worse consequences. Archbishop Yohanna Moshi of the Syriac Catholic Church, the largest church in Nineveh, writes that the Christians of northern Iraq determined they “can never trust Daesh [ISIS] no matter how many good intentions they try to show.” This is not Islamophobia: The Christian jizya issue aside, the State Department, of course, does not trust ISIS either.
Emanuel Adelkello, a Syrian Catholic priest who dealt directly with ISIS over the fate of the 1,000 Christians still in Mosul in late July 2014, wrote to me details about the “jizya option.” He relates that ISIS demanded all remaining adult Christian men to gather at a Mosul community center, purportedly to hear ISIS’s jizya announcement. After the Christian leaders consulted among themselves, they decided it would be unwise to go. Father Emanuel explained that they feared that either they were being rounded up for slaughter or that the Christian women and girls would be jeopardized should their people remain under ISIS’s “protection.” In the priest’s words:
The collective belief was that this gathering was not an attempt to negotiate, it was only going to be a demand at best, and a trap at worst. The Christians mostly believed they would likely be killed if they showed up. At the appointed time, no Christians showed up. Angered, ISIS then gave them two choices, leave or be killed. . . . [Jizya] was only put forward initially as a ploy from which ISIS could keep the Christians there to further take advantage of them and abuse them. There was specific concern that the intention was to keep women there so that they could be taken freely by the ISIS fighters. The ISIS fighters had made public statements that according to the Koran it was their right to take the Christian women as they pleased.
Their concerns were soon to be validated. Within weeks, two dozen Christian women and girls who had remained in Nineveh were captured as ISIS sex slaves. They have yet to be freed. In August, thousands of Yazidis were also captured. On October 16, 2014, the Islamic State’s treasury department released an official price list for the sale of Christian as well as Yazidi females. Girls one to seven years old were the priciest, at $200. This price list was found authentic by Zainab Bangura, the U.N.’s special representative for sexual violence in conflict.
Reports about the Christians who stayed behind in Nineveh after ISIS took control in the summer of 2014 also provide critical evidence. Iraqi Christian parliamentarian Yonadam Kanna reports that a dozen or so Christian families who remained in Mosul, largely because of disabilities or old age, were forced to convert to Islam. World magazine editor Mindy Belz, who interviewed Christian survivors in Nineveh, writes in her new book They Say We Are Infidels that, in the major Christian city of Qaraqosh, some 100 Christians who were initially left behind were held hostage in their homes. “One father described being tortured,” she relates, “while his wife and two children were threatened after the family refused to deny their faith.”
Another Nineveh family had their three-year-old daughter, Christina Noah, taken from them by ISIS militants. According to a cell-phone call from Rita, a 25-year-old Christian woman who also failed to escape, both she and Christina were detained in a holding pen with other women and girls and waiting to be sold at a Mosul slave market, as reported in the New York Times. Archbishop Moshi states that in all, over 20 Christians, aged mostly between 40 and 70, were captured and haven’t been seen since, despite ransom offers from the Church.
One 80-year-old Nineveh Christian woman who stayed was reportedly burned alive last May.
One 80-year-old Nineveh Christian woman who stayed was reportedly burned alive last May. In another Christian family, the mother and twelve-year-old daughter were raped by ISIS militants, leading the father, who was forced to watch, to commit suicide. A Christian refugee told Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now the archbishop emeritus of Washington, that she witnessed ISIS crucify her husband on the door of their home.
In September 2014, a family of twelve Assyrian Christians, trapped in their Nineveh hometown of Bartella after ISIS swept in a month earlier, escaped after being forcibly converted to Islam. A coreligionist who refused to renounce his faith was badly beaten, tied up, and taken off in a truck to, as they concluded, be killed.
The small numbers of Nineveh Christians remaining live as indigents or captives, or both.
Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, the former counterterrorism coordinator in the State Department under Kerry, has determined that ISIS’s jizya option is a “Salafi Caliphate publicity stunt.” It aims to make its leader appear more caliph-like. Fernandez wrote about the jizya option in Raqqa:
After burning Christian books, destroying churches, and kidnapping priests in Raqqa in 2013, ISIS then publicized, in February 2014, a new dhimmi pact [to pay a jizya tax] with Christians in Raqqa State. The announcement received considerable attention in international media, but there is little evidence that there was much of a Christian community to form the pact with. Although the agreement includes the standard language of “not building a church, monastery or monk’s hermitage,” there is no evidence that any existing churches actually remained open or in Christian hands, much less that anyone would want to build any. Indeed, there are no images whatsoever of what could be described as normal Christian life in ISIS-controlled territory — no functioning churches, no monasteries or working priests, and no Christian families or Christian schools — all of which had existed throughout Islamic history.
ISIS defectors report that the rape of Christian female “infidels” in Raqqa was common and approved by the ISIS sharia court. Some were twelve years old. The last young person to leave Raqqa reported that he had to pay “jizya” but lived in “constant fear” and had to conform to Muslim dress and customs, even to shout “Allahu akbar” along with mobs, and had no possibility of going to church. No more than a dozen or two elderly Christians are left in Raqqa.
Over the past year, ISIS abducted some 500 Christians from the Syrian town of Qarayatain and from villages in the Khabur River valley. In both cases, Islamic State sharia courts ordered church patriarchs to pay the Islamic tax levied for non-Muslims, but it’s impossible to see these as anything but hostage-for-ransom cases. From the Khabur group, three men dressed in orange jumpsuits were killed in an ISIS video, and the rest were eventually freed, after the Assyrian Church paid part of the $23 million that ISIS demanded. Archbishop Jean Kawak of the Syriac Orthodox Church states that the Qarayatain Christians are being “treated like slaves” and continue to be held there against their will.
In every known case where ISIS uses the term “jizya,” the Christian payments are clearly ransom or extortion. Permission to perform Christian “rites” is traditionally purported to follow from jizya, but in no known case does ISIS honor it. ISIS’s demands for jizya are typically accompanied by atrocities. There is no functioning church, no Christian clergy, no Christian liturgies or sacraments, and no intact Christian community anywhere under the Islamic State.
Genocide is the “crime of crimes.” Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.), who along with Representative Anna Eshoo (D., Calif.) introduced the House genocide resolution, remarked that it is important to address “the scandal of silence and indifference about ISIS’ targeted and systematic destruction of these endangered communities.” It is urgent that the Obama administration recognize that Christians too are among the victims of ISIS genocide and, along with Yazidis, extremely vulnerable. You can help by signing this petition.
— Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.