National Security & Defense

Heroines, Heroes, and Martyrs of the Christian Genocide in the Middle East

A Christian refugee displays her crucifix in Erbil, Iraq, December 2014. (Matt Cardy/Getty)
‘Jesus died for me; for that I will die for him.’

For months, conventional wisdom held that the United States State Department would leave Christians off of any acknowledgement of genocide by ISIS in the Middle East. Late last week, on a Congressionally mandated deadline, John Kerry did the right thing and named Christians as among the victims of the genocide. Among those who urged the State Department to do so were the Knights of Columbus, which spearheaded the compilation of a report of evidence of genocidal crimes committed, along with In Defense of Christians. Carl Anderson, head of the Knights, talks about the designation and the relief fund they have established to send aid to the frontlines.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Were you surprised by John Kerry’s announcement about genocide?

Carl Anderson: The evidence was absolutely overwhelming, so in one way I am not surprised that Secretary Kerry made the right decision. On the other hand, the United States has a poor record when it comes to ongoing genocides, and the bureaucracy often stops such declarations, so from that point of view, the declaration was extraordinary. Still, having looked at the evidence that we submitted in our report, I think it would have been hard to come to any other conclusion.

Lopez: Any idea why it took so long — following Europe and many others?

Anderson: Congress set a deadline of March 17, and that deadline was met. Also, the State Department’s designation came a little over a month after the European Parliament’s, so it seems that the world is paying attention to the gravity of what is happening in unison.

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Lopez: The Knights have gone all in on genocide — doing fact-finding work, providing aid on the ground, rallying attention. Why?

Anderson: The most important thing is that the killing, rape, kidnapping, and slavery end and that these innocent people be protected. This is the reason we have worked so hard on this project, first with humanitarian assistance, then with drawing attention to the situation and insisting that the United States declare it genocide. The truth matters, and the category of genocide says clearly that what is happening cannot be allowed to continue.

In addition, speaking the truth of this situation matters, and we understood how important it was for those suffering this genocide to have the world, and the United States, recognize what is happening. The declaration thus makes clear that this cannot happen again, and it does so in the shadow of the last century, when 100 years ago, Christians in the Middle East were slaughtered during the “year of the sword,” and then were subjected to several more slaughters at other points during the 20th century — simply because of their faith.

So this declaration sheds light on what is happening to the Christians and other religious minorities in the region, and it makes clear that the world is finally able to say “enough is enough.” This declaration also says that the killing must cease, the innocent must be protected, that the perpetrators should be brought to justice, and as Secretary Kerry explicitly pointed out, we must now begin the discussion of how to make sure that religious minorities are accorded full civil rights, in other words, full citizenship in these countries.


Lopez: How is the report released earlier this month just the tip of the iceberg, as you put it at the Press Club?

Anderson: Well, the report is very thorough and comprehensive in terms of what we know, but we also understand that there is much more that we still don’t know. Every day that has passed since the report was printed has brought us additional reports and stories of the crimes committed against Christians in this region. Whatever we know today, it always seems that we learn even more tomorrow, and that no matter how many horrible crimes we are aware of, there are still more to be discovered. This is common in situations like this. When regions where genocide occurs stabilize or are liberated, new crimes are always discovered, and, sadly, it will be the same in this case too.

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Lopez: So now we’ve called it genocide. What now?

Anderson: Now we can have the rest of the discussion and begin to concretely answer such questions as how best to stop the slaughter, how best to help the people affected, the refugees, etc., and how best to make sure that civil rights for all people in this region, including Christians and other religious minorities, are protected.

Lopez: What can you personally confirm happens to money that people give to the Christian relief fund that the Knights run?

Anderson: We take no administrative fees from the money we raise, so all of that money goes directly to help those in need. Most of it is distributed via trusted partners to the refugees, and a small percentage is used for raising awareness about their situation and bettering it in that way.

Lopez: What more can we do?

Anderson: People can do three things: first, pray for these Christians who are suffering for their faith; second, let people know about what is happening there through conversations, social media, whatever platforms you may have access to; and third, donate to our fund to help those who have been targeted for genocide to survive.

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Lopez: You had Father Douglas Bazi in the U.S. last week for the press conference you did with In Defense of Christians. Why is it so important for Americans to know who he is? And who his people are?

Anderson: Father Douglas is a living martyr. Because of his faith he was captured, held hostage, and tortured by terrorists. His story makes clear what Christians in this part of the world face just because of their love for Jesus Christ. It is one thing to read generally about thousands of victims of targeted attacks against Christians, but it is another to know the individual stories of courageous Christians such as Father Douglas. It makes what is happening very concrete. Now he is helping the displaced Christians in Kurdistan, and we have been honored to work closely with him in this endeavor too.

Lopez: Who will be the heroes of this moment? The martyrs?

Anderson: There are many heroes and some of them are martyrs as well. I think of one middle-aged woman who our team interviewed named Khalia. She was captured along with 47 other people. Over the next two weeks she protected the other women from rape, stopped ISIS militants from taking a nine-year-old as a bride, and repeatedly rejected demands at sword and gun point that she convert. As she told the terrorists: “Jesus died for me; for that I will die for him.” There are the others who took in the refugees in Kurdistan, in Lebanon, and in other places in the region that have taken in refugees, cared for them, and helped them survive. There are the stories of neighbors who helped people flee, and of individuals in the United States who supported the displaced. The heroes are an inspiration to us all, and their commitment to their faith under such intense pressure, should lead us to strengthen our own faith, even as we give thanks for the fact that we do not face these horrors directly.


Lopez: Is this in any way at all a reminder to us to always protect religious liberty at home, as the Little Sisters of the Poor go to the Supreme Court next week?

Anderson: The lesson for us at home is that we must celebrate the religious freedom that we have, and must defend it when necessary. If the Christians in Iraq and Syria can stand up for their faith even in the face of murder and death threats, shouldn’t we do the same when the consequences we face are so much less severe? Don’t we owe it to those who are giving their lives for Christ to give up our comfort for him when necessary? To practice our faith, we must be allowed to live it out. Our First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion should ensure that we not only have the right to believe according to our faith, but also the right to act according to it. And we must work hard to protect that right, and this is true even when it means we take the minority view on a particular issue.

Lopez: Do you feel like this could be a healing moment for Christian unity?

Anderson: What has happened to Christians in the Middle East has reminded us of the fact that we have Christian brothers and sisters in this region. Many of them pray in the language of Jesus. All of them share our belief in Christ. Pope Francis has spoken about the ecumenism of blood, and so, as terrible as this situation is, I think it has drawn Christians from different groups in the Middle East closer together, and it has brought Christians from Europe and the United States closer to their brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering in this region.

Lopez: What is your mind focused on as we enter into Holy Week and then Easter?

Anderson: As we enter Holy Week, perhaps we should all be reminded of Kahlia’s words. That because Christ died for her, she was willing to die for him. Christ’s passion and death were acts of love, redemption, and mercy for all of us. The events of Good Friday were a public witness to that love. Now we see our fellow Christians witnessing to their love of Christ and one another in a public way. The Christians in the Middle East are encountering their own, ongoing Good Friday. We should think about their sacrifices, pray for them, and be inspired by their actions. This is a worthy meditation for Holy Week.

Lopez: What more will we see from the Knights on religious persecution and religious liberty to come?

Anderson: The history of the Knights of Columbus is a history of standing up for religious freedom, at home and abroad. First, we were founded by the immigrants and sons of immigrants of faith — often not appreciated by the Protestant-majority United States — and as a result, from the beginning, our religious freedom was a key component. In the early 20th century, we stood against the Klan when it tried to ban Catholic education, supporting the court case that helped secure the right to Catholic education in Pierce v. Society of Sisters. When the Mexican government of the 1920s began to kill Catholics and persecute the Church, we engaged in humanitarian relief efforts, raised awareness, engaged in public lobbying of the American government to better the situation, and helped end the slaughter. Again during the Cold War, we helped the Christians behind the Iron Curtain in a variety of ways. When our First Amendment religious-freedom rights have been threatened at home, we have spoken up as well. So this issue has been important to us in the past, and will continue to be so in the future.


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