Skip to main content

For Christians and Yazidis Fleeing Genocide, the Obama Administration Has No Room at the Inn

Nina Shea

The Obama administration maintains that its principal strategic response to the conflict in Syria is humanitarian, not military, and focused on human rights. In Syria as well as Iraq, the consequences of this policy have been shockingly deficient. The West is only now beginning to wake up to its catastrophic results, as Europe struggles with a mass migration of a magnitude the continent has not experienced since the 1940s.

In April, Assad began intensifying the barrel bombing of Aleppo and Damascus’s Sunni neighborhoods while streamlining the passport process. In June, the U.N. was forced, unconscionably, to slash Syrian refugee food rations for lack of funding. Whether it was then, or when human traffickers began operating rickety craft from the port of Izmir, Turkey — leading to some 3,000 drownings — at every juncture, the administration failed to lead a serious effort to mitigate the suffering. This explosion has been building for years. The administration slumbered instead of coordinating an effective allied effort to head off a dangerous and chaotic westward surge of hundreds of thousands, potentially tens of millions, of oppressed and poor migrants, with some terrorists among them.

And that’s not the half of it. In Syria and Iraq, there continues to develop a horrific human-rights crisis that evokes the darkest episodes of World War II. ISIS and other Islamist extremists are waging genocide, the most egregious of all human-rights atrocities, against Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, and other defenseless religious minorities, whom the administration, apart from last year’s airstrikes to help the Yazidis, has failed.

This religious genocide is distinct from but simultaneous with the region’s wars. Similar to Jews under Nazi domination during World War II, the Christians and other minorities in the Middle East today are facing, in addition to the wartime privations suffered by the general population, a relentless and deliberate extermination campaign being carried out in the name of Islamic purification.

In the summer of 2014, ISIS launched its caliphate from Mosul by marking Christian homes with the red letter “N,” for “Nazarene,” before confiscating them and exiling their owners. Since then, it has pursued Christians and the other minorities with a systematic intensity intended to delete every trace of their ancient presence. Solely for their religion, Christians and Yazidis have been beheaded, enslaved, abducted and sold, forcibly converted to Islam, and stripped of all their property. Their houses of worship and their cultural artifacts have been expropriated or demolished, including the fifth-century monastery in Qaraytain and Nineveh’s fourth-century Mar Behnam monastery.

Those driven by ISIS from Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town on the Nineveh plain, fill the Mar Elias camp in Erbil, Kurdistan. Every Christian family had a personal story to tell Hudson Institute researchers last week: A dentist tells of her colleague, another dentist, who was kidnapped and is thought now to be either dead or forcibly converted to Islam. Another friend was captured and is feared dead because he once worked for Coalition Forces. After a sibling was captured, her family says, they spent thousands of dollars in ransom scams and have now come to believe that she is an “ISIS bride.” A 14-year-old cousin of another family is also thought to be enslaved.

More than a year after it began, ISIS’s persecution continues. Some 3,000 Yazidi women and girls and smaller numbers of Christians remain enslaved by ISIS for sex. The practice of sexual enslavement, explicitly directed against Christians and Yazidis, is now institutionalized by the Islamic State. It was revived last year by ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself when he took captive and serially raped American humanitarian Kayla Mueller.

Hundreds of other Christian civilians remain ISIS prisoners, including 460 taken during the spring and summer from northern Syria. Others have been slaughtered. Catholic priest Father Jacques Mourad was captured in Syria in July and has disappeared. Another Iraqi priest was killed and returned in pieces to his family, despite a payment of $120,000 in ransom. This seems to be a new trend: Recently other Iraqi Christian hostages have been killed despite ransom payments.

Pope Francis has been among those trying in vain to call attention to the ongoing attempt at extermination. In July, referring to these persecuted Christians, he asserted that “a form of genocide — and I stress the word ‘genocide’ — is taking place, and it must end.” He has taken to wearing around his neck the cross of Father Ragheed Ganni, an Iraqi priest whose throat was slit by Islamists when he refused to close his church in Mosul. In another dramatic gesture, the Vatican on September 6 gave refuge to a Melkite Greek Catholic family from Damascus. The pope has urged others to do likewise.

Top officials in the Kurdish Regional Government, which refers unequivocally to the “genocide,” has given sanctuary to 120,000 Christians and more than 500,000 Yazidis — that is, to most of the displaced members of those two populations who have fled the killing fields of Nineveh. Even the dilatory U.N. has reported that the minorities’ situation “strongly suggested” genocide. A formal U.N. finding will likely come too late to make a difference.

In Congress, a bipartisan resolution, introduced on September 9 at the initiative of Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R., Neb.) officially identifies as “genocide” this persecution of religious minorities. The bill has already drawn scores of signatories eager to spur meaningful change in U.S. policy. So far, the Obama administration has failed to take note. Were it to acknowledge genocide, it would be bound by the U.N. Genocide Convention to act to end it.

Only after the migrant crisis in Europe began making daily headlines did the State Department, following Europe’s lead, announce that it would accept limited numbers of “Syrian refugees.” This anodyne measure will not help the victims of genocide, and not only because the measure fails to include Iraqis. In fact, this action will de facto exclude Christian and Yazidi refugees who have fled both Syria and Iraq, because virtually every non-Muslim, fearing the presence of extremists, eschews the U.N. refugee camps, the only source from which the U.S. will accept refugees. The non-Muslim refugees instead cluster in informal encampments, typically around churches, in Kurdistan and neighboring regions.

(Bishop Sarhad Jammo of the Chaldean Catholic Church for the western United States told me that fewer than 50 Chaldean Catholic families, Iraq’s largest Christian community, are known to have taken part in the great European migration. Not only are most Chaldean Catholics too poor to leave after ISIS robbed them, but they fear other migrants, who are mainly Sunni men. In April, Italy reported that twelve Christian migrants en route to Europe were thrown overboard by Muslim migrants and drowned. At least 6,000 Yazidis joined the migration after being driven from refugee camps in Turkey.)

A similar announcement by the U.K. government stirred a parliamentary firestorm over the question of how such programs will fail to help the minorities stranded in the region. Both the current and the preceding archbishops of Canterbury voiced protest. The latter, George Carey, expressed outrage that the Christians would be “left at the bottom of the heap”, explaining that a policy of accepting only those from U.N. camps

inadvertently discriminates against the very Christian communities most victimised by the inhuman butchers of the so-called Islamic State. Christians are not to be found in the UN camps, because they have been attacked and targeted by Islamists and driven from them. They are seeking refuge in private homes, church buildings and with neighbours and family.

The House of Lords took up the issue on September 9 after Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, speaking as parliamentary under-secretary of state for the Home Office, introduced the program, saying that it would not “distinguish on the basis of religion.” Lord Green of Hurstpierpoint pressed the objection that not to discriminate would amount to discrimination against the Christians. Baroness Berridge of the Vale of Catmose argued that “while no one can theologically or legally defend prioritising people on the grounds of their faith alone, . . . where there is evidence of persecution on the grounds of faith or belief, membership of those communities should be a relevant criterion used by the U.N. and the U.K. in assessing those in greatest need.”

While the matter is unresolved in the U.K., Canada has since clarified that its Syrian-refugee program would include Iraqis and would not be limited to those inside U.N. refugee camps. But even the expanded programs there are likely to grant only a small fraction — their proportion of Iraq’s or Syria’s population — of the spaces allotted to persecuted minorities. For religious minorities from Iraq, that fraction could be as low as one in 100. There has been no move to prioritize them on the grounds that they face genocide. In other words, according to this reasoning, Jews during the Holocaust should have been given refuge only in proportion to their population as a fraction of the population of Nazi Germany and other Axis-controlled countries where they faced genocide.

Like the Yazidis, the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Christians, and increasing numbers of Syrian Christians, say that they are desperate to leave and will go anywhere they can to rebuild their lives. In their sanctuaries in Kurdistan, Jordan, and Lebanon, they have no resettlement right to work, go to school, or even drive a car.

They see no future for themselves in their ancient homeland. Recent statements by American military experts validate the view that it will be a long time before ISIS is defeated and that the borders of Syria and Iraq may eventually be redrawn along lines corresponding to the majority sectarian and ethnic groups.

In the meantime, Christian and Yazidi lands are undefended. Bishop Jammo reports that even in Baghdad the Iraqi government has failed to legally protect Christians’ ownership rights to their homes. Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, tells me that, should ISIS be someday defeated, no government authority will be likely to adjudicate the rights of minorities if they find that their properties are occupied by others.

Some regional Christian leaders are now imploring the world for asylum for their flocks. “I am calling on the international community,” says Yohanna Mouche, the Syriac Catholic archbishop of Mosul. “If they cannot protect us, then they must open their doors and help us start a new life elsewhere.” Bishop Jammo has long pressed this point but emphasizes that Iraqi and Syrian Christians should be resettled in large communities so that their Aramaic language, spoken by Jesus and his apostles, and their precious ancient culture and traditions might be preserved.

The Obama administration has offered no assurance that it will look outside the U.N. system to ensure that any Christians and Yazidis who fled ISIS will be included under the U.S. quota program. Whether out of indifference or by intent, the administration is abandoning the members of these religious minorities. In so doing, it is impeding their chances of survival, along with dooming the imperative of “never again.”

Related Articles

The Beirut Echo Chamber

Lee Smith

How Lebanon came to host an information campaign designed to protect the pro-Iran policies of the Obama administration...

Continue Reading

Giving Thanks for Faith and Freedom

Lela Gilbert

This time of year, during a long-awaited weekend of celebration, our minds turn toward feasts and family. The Thanksgiving holiday is a season of grat...

Continue Reading

Interfaith Coalition Provides Medical Aid, Healing Amid Syrian War

Lela Gilbert

Could wartime medical outreach involving Jews, Christians, and Muslims evolve into a hands-on, practical Middle East peace plan?...

Continue Reading