WASHINGTON (BP) — Southern Baptist and other religious freedom advocates commended the Obama administration’s declaration Thursday (March 17) that the Islamic State’s murderous campaign against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East is genocide.
The announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry provided a satisfactory resolution to what concerned observers had feared for four months would be a disturbing decision by the administration. Religious liberty advocates urged Kerry and President Obama to reverse course after it was reported in mid-November the State Department was preparing to label as genocide in Iraq and Syria only the Islamic State’s campaign against the Yazidi sect.
In his announcement Thursday morning, Kerry said it is his judgment the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as Daesh, “is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shia Muslims.”
The Islamic State, he said, “is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions — in what it says, what it believes and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other minorities.”
Southern Baptist religious freedom leader Russell Moore — who petitioned the administration three times not to exclude Christians from a genocide designation — expressed gratitude “that at long last this administration is willing to acknowledge the ISIS campaign of genocide against Christians, Yazidis and many other ethnic and religious minorities.”
Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), described the genocidal campaign in Iraq and Syria as “an urgent human rights crisis.”
“Millions, including many of our Christian brothers and sisters, have experienced the most brutal forms of persecution, and entire cultures are now on the brink of extinction,” he said in comments for Baptist Press.
Travis Wussow, director of international justice and religious freedom in the ERLC’s Middle East office, told BP the ERLC and many other organizations “have been working on this issue for months, and we are thankful that the Obama administration has responded to what we now all agree is the genocide perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State.”
“We are thankful, of course, for what this means for our brothers and sisters,” Wussow said, “but we are mindful also that this statement shows that the United States will stand with all victims of genocide, regardless of ethnicity, faith or creed.”
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, also expressed thanks for the declaration and said he hopes “immediate actions can be taken to eliminate this evil persecution.” He added the international community “needs to stand strong together in this hour for the cause of human dignity and religious liberty for all people globally.”
A 1948 United Nations treaty defines genocide as murder and other acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
Kerry cited the following among ISIS’ crimes against minority groups in the two Middle Eastern countries:
— The execution of Christians and the sexual enslavement of Christian women and girls.
— The killing of hundreds of Yazidis and raping and sexual enslavement of thousands of Yazidi females.
— The massacres of hundreds of Shia Turkmen and Shabaks, as well as the kidnapping and rape of Shia Turkmen women.
Other ISIS atrocities named by religious liberty advocates include assassinations of church leaders, torture, mass graves and the destruction of churches, monasteries and cemeteries.
ISIS “kills Christians because they are Christians, Yazidis because they are Yazidis, Shia because they are Shia,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department. “Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology.
“One element of genocide is the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group, in whole or in part. We know that [ISIS] has given some of its victims a choice between abandoning their faith or being killed, and that for many is a choice between one kind of death and another.”
The United States’ response to the Islamic State must be in part “to destroy it by military force,” but other efforts are also important, said Kerry, citing more than $600 million in aid during the last two-and-a-half years for Iraqis displaced by ISIS.
“Naming these crimes is important,” Kerry said. “But what is essential is to stop them. That will require unity in this country and within the countries directly involved.”
Religious liberty leaders said support for and protection of religious minorities threatened by or suffering at the hands of the Islamic State must continue.
Moore told BP, “Evangelical Christians will continue to advocate and work compassionately for refugees and others, and pray that our country always stands up for religious liberty and human dignity wherever it is threatened.”
Douglas Napier of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) called Kerry’s genocide designation “an important first step in the necessary process by the United States, the U.N. and the international community to stop the killing in the Middle East.”
Napier, senior counsel and executive director of ADF International, said in written comments the United States and the 146 other countries who are part of the U.N. genocide treaty “have an obligation to do all they can to bring the killing of innocent people to an end.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R.-Neb., applauded Kerry’s decision and expressed the hope it “will raise international consciousness, end the scandal of silence, and create the preconditions for the protection and reintegration of these ancient faith communities into their ancestral homelands.”
The House of Representatives unanimously passed March 15 a resolution sponsored by Fortenberry that named the Islamic State’s violence against religious minorities as genocide.
Moore was among more than 110 signers of a Feb. 17 letter to President Obama urging his administration to categorize ISIS’ actions as genocide. He wrote Kerry in mid-November to urge him not to distinguish between different groups suffering at the hands of the terrorist organization. In early December, Moore and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, were among 30 signers of a letter calling on Kerry to heed evidence that Christians are targets of genocide and to meet with representatives of their coalition before issuing a decision.
Kerry’s announcement came a day after a deadline for such a report set by Congress in an omnibus spending bill enacted in mid-December.