U.S. says ISIS committing genocide; now what?

In a historic announcement, the U.S. Department of State officially proclaimed that the Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.

On March 17, Secretary John Kerry stated, “Daesh (also known as ISIS or the Islamic State) is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions — in what it says, what it believes and what it does.”

In announcing the determination, Kerry credited “the vast amount of information gathered by the State Department, by our intelligence community, by outside groups. And my conclusion is based on that information and on the nature of the acts reported.”

At the forefront of the outside groups giving persuasive information was the Knights of Columbus, whose comprehensive report included a list of hundreds of Christians known to have been murdered and more than 100 churches known to have been attacked, and a copy of a document titled “Christian and Yazidi Sexual Slave Price List” published by ISIS.

After Kerry’s announcement, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, CEO of the organization, said, “The Knights of Columbus is pleased to have been able to work with the State Department in providing a nearly 300-page report filled with compelling evidence that genocide was occurring against Christians as well as other religious minorities. We thank Secretary Kerry for seriously considering the evidence, and commend the State Department staff for working closely with us in this endeavor.”


Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, long a proponent of naming the atrocities as genocide, wrote on his blog:

“On behalf of the Church of Washington, and personally, I would like to express my appreciation for the U.S. State Department’s official recognition that the violent atrocities and persecution being perpetrated by ISIS against Christians constitutes genocide.”

Cardinal Wuerl concluded with a call to build on the State Department determination.

“This legal action follows the declarations of Congress and the European Parliament condemning as genocide this aggression by the forces of the self-proclaimed Islamic State,” he wrote. “For some time, the world has witnessed the deliberate and organized effort by ISIS to eliminate Christians from the Middle East. For the U.S. government to call this savagery by its proper name — genocide — is a welcome step in what must now be a more committed effort at bringing peace and security to that beleaguered land. These words must now be translated into action.”

Benefits of proclamation

When asked by Our Sunday Visitor what action can now be expected, Stephen Colecchi, director of the Office for International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered four anticipated outcomes to help those still suffering.

“The very first thing that is important is that this will make it easier for persecuted persons to pursue a resettlement in a third country if they are not able to return. I’m thinking particularly of the traumatized Iraqi Christian families that I met in January in Jordan. They barely escaped Mosul and can’t see a path back after the horror they witnessed,” Colecchi said.

“This designation will help as they are processed through the United Nations system for resettlement in countries like the United States. This will give them priority treatment.”

“Second, it will strengthen the international consensus to provide protection and assistance to those who have fled the genocide. That will mean strengthening the Kurdish region in Iraq to protect those Christian, Yazidi and Shia Muslims who fled there and a strengthening of the consensus of the international community to increase financial assistance,” he said.

Colecchi added that more financial help is needed for humanitarian and development reasons.

“Humanitarian assistance is needed for displaced families when they first leave an area, but if they are going to be displaced for a long time they need assistance that provides for education, employment and permanent housing,” he said. “Clearly, this declaration of genocide will help the United States and the international community to continue to be generous in that regard.”

Colecchi said the third thing the designation will do is comfort Christians, Yazidi and minorities.

“When you name the truth about something that is happening to your own people, it gives them the sense that others are with them. Moral and spiritual support is important, and we should not underestimate it. That the world knows, and is naming it clearly, will be a great comfort to the Church in the region, and to others that have faced genocide,” he added.

Lastly, Colecchi said it means people will be held accountable.

“When the conflict ends, the perpetrators of genocide can be brought to tribunals, as happened after World War II, and they can be prosecuted for the crime of genocide,” he added. “That’s a deterrent to future genocide but also hopefully will give pause to those who get caught up in the recruitment strategies of Islamic State.”

“It’s not the entire solution; it’s a step along the way,” Colecchi said. “Ultimately, this fight against extremism and this perversion of Islam will not be won on a battlefield, and it won’t be won in a courtroom or at a tribunal. We have to reduce the social and political exclusion that has created the conditions that have allowed for this kind of extremism.”

Historic parallel

Terrence Kelly, senior researcher at the Rand Corporation, a not-for-profit, nonpartisan public policy research organization, agreed that the government’s proclamation is just a step along the way.

“While political decisions still have to be made, you would hope that a distinction like this would cause a change in policy. Also, it’s possible that this designation could trigger some statutes that would cause some additional resources to be available.”

Kelly also offered a historical footnote.

“I found it extremely appropriate that this announcement was made on the feast of St. Patrick, because St. Patrick wrote a famous letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a warlord in Ireland who had taken Christians captive and sold them into slavery. Coroticus was roundly condemned. St. Patrick’s powerful letter, written 1,500 years ago, lays out many of the things that we are all concerned about today.”

James K. Hanna holds a master’s degree in theology and is an online instructor for the University of Notre Dame’s STEP program.