US House votes unanimously to declare ISIS committing genocide of Christians, minorities

© Omar Sanadiki
The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to declare that Islamic State is committing genocide against Christians and other minority groups in Iraq and Syria, increasing pressure on the Obama administration to follow suit.

In a unanimous 393-0 vote on Monday night, the House resolution comes just days before the State Department is legally mandated by Congress to determine whether Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) persecution of minorities in Iraq and Syria – Christians, Yazidis, Sunni Kurds and Shiite Muslims – constitutes genocide.

“What is happening in Iraq and Syria is a deliberate, systematic targeting of religious and ethnic minorities. Today, the House unanimously voted to call ISIS's atrocities what they are: a genocide. We also will continue to offer our prayers for the persecuted,” House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said in a statement.

Increasingly, governments and groups from around the world have declared IS behavior as genocide, including Pope Francis, the European Parliament, the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Iraqi government, and US presidential candidates.

However, the Obama administration has yet to do so and has dragged its heels regarding the issue. The State Department may even miss the March-17 deadline as it continues its legal review, according to AP.

“It is my sincere hope that this trans-partisan resolution will further compel the State Department to join the building international consensus in calling the horrific ISIS violence against Christians, Yazidis and others by its proper name: ‘genocide’,” Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Nebraska), who introduced the measure, told the Washington Post.

Earlier this month, White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested the US wasn’t quite ready to call the IS slaughter of Christians genocide. “My understanding is the use of that word involves a very specific legal determination that has at this point not been reached,” he said.

“We have long expressed our concerns with the tendency of – well, not a tendency – a tactic employed by ISIL to slaughter religious minorities in Iraq and in Syria,” he added. “But we have been quite candid and direct exactly about how ISIL’s tactics are worthy of the kind of international, robust response that the international community is leading. And those tactics include a willingness to target religious minorities, including Christians.”

The administration may be cautious in making its determination because labeling IS behavior as genocide could require more action on America’s part to stop the extermination, as part of a 1948 UN Convention against genocide. What kind of action and when it would need to be taken is up for debate. The last time the US recognized genocide was in Sudan in 2004, but at that time the State Department said it was not obligated to take action, and instead went to the UN to try and reach consensus on the issue.

Outside groups have tried to ramp up pressure on the administration. Last week, the Knights of Columbus released a report detailing the brutality facing Christians in Iraq and Syria, arguing that the danger they face could only be described as genocide.

The persecution of Christian minorities in Syria and Iraq has resulted in quickly dwindling numbers. There are roughly 300,000 Christians remaining in Iraq compared to 1.4 million in 2003, according to the UK-based NGO Aid to the Church in Need. In Syria, there are now 500,000 Christians, compared to over 1.25 million in 2011.

Christianity could essentially disappear from Iraq within five years, the report argued, and the religion could face a similar fate in other Middle Eastern countries.