Mideast Christians ask US Congress to designate ISIS ‘agent of genocide’
Washington - Emotions ran high at a Washington event over an appeal to protect Christians in the Middle East, as campaign organisers pushed for a US congressional resolution to designate the Islamic State (ISIS) “an agent of genocide” and called on the United States to take immediate steps to create a safe haven in Iraq.
Organised by the newly formed group In Defense of Christianity (IDC), which includes Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christian churches from the East and the West, the three-day convention in early September attracted dozens of US congressmen, who spoke in support of the proposal.
The resolution calls on Congress to designate the actions of the Islamic State (ISIS) as genocide and crimes against humanity and subsequently pursue and prosecute those responsible.
The move comes on the heels of Pope Francis calling for churches to take in displaced people fleeing war in Syria and elsewhere
Among the attendees at the Washington conference were residents from the Iraqi province of Nineveh who pushed for immediate help for devastated communities in Iraq.
“For the first time in history, the communities of Nineveh no longer live there. They’ve been pushed out. I speak of the Christians and Yazidis,” said Anwar Hadaya, a council member of Nineveh governorate. He flew from Iraq to attend the event and spoke in Arabic through an interpreter.
Hadaya joined his compatriots in blaming the United States and its allies for what he called a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq that left minorities unprotected under an increasingly corrupt and sectarian Iraqi government.
“Starting in 2003, the genocide began. Who is responsible for this? Definitely the Iraqi government for failing to support the people of Iraq, especially minorities,” he said. “Sure, the US wanted to end the occupation but the responsibility remains with the US and its allies… and frankly, if we only depend on the government of Iraq, we have no reason for optimism.”
Nahren Anweya, an Assyrian- American activist who supports the formation of an internationally protected safe haven in Nineveh, concurred. She said the population in Mosul, Nineveh’s capital, had dwindled from 4 million to 200,000 due to ISIS violence and occupation.
“Where’s the British government, which was also involved in Iraq? We need to encourage the US to come back to Iraq to be there for a long time. Both the Democrats and Republicans have guilt. This is a bipartisan cause,” she said.
Anweya echoed a sentiment common among attendees that the United States should return to Iraq and conduct military operations to expel ISIS from Nineveh and create a safe haven for the region’s indigenous population to return.
“It’s possible to liberate Nineveh, and once that’s done the area can host more than a million people,” said Hadaya.
Christians in the Middle East have seen their numbers dwindle substantially in the past few decades. According to IDC, in 1914 about 20% of people in the Middle East were Christians. By 2014, their numbers had fallen to 5%. Two-thirds of the 1.5 million Christians then living in Iraq fled following the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein.
The civil war in Syria combined with the spread of ISIS has devastated communities of all sects, including Sunni Muslims, but minorities especially have borne the brunt of displacement and persecution.
At an event sponsored by the French Embassy in Washington, IDC screened a documentary by Los Angeles-based Syrian filmmaker Sargon Saadi featuring Yazidis and Christians driven out of Nineveh by ISIS, which killed hundreds of the men and abducted women and children. Many of the abducted were seen in slave auctions featured by ISIS in footage posted online and in the group’s propaganda magazine.
“Have we become the laughing stock of the world? They [ISIS] were making fun of the Yazidi girls they kidnapped. Are we a big joke now? No one cares about us,” a distraught woman tells the camera.
Some US lawmakers expressed surprise that it had taken this long for Christians of the Middle East to organise and present a unified front to US President Barack Obama’s administration.
“I’ve served in Congress for two decades and this is the first time I see a group specifically for Christians,” said John Mica, a Republican from Florida.
But there was no shortage of urgency among the organisers, as some attendees cried and others lamented the friends and family members they have lost.
“I promise you, when they’re done with us there, they will come for the rest of the world,” said Anweya referring to ISIS.
The atmosphere of unity was marred when keynote speaker Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas and a candidate for president, praised Israel as a defender of Christian communities in the Middle East. Many in audience, which included Palestinian Christians, booed and heckled Cruz.