By Gordon L. Heath
On 17 March 2016, John Kerry, US Secretary of State, declared that Daesh (Islamic State) was committing genocide against Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. His declaration was welcome news for those concerned with human rights, dignity, and security for people of all faiths.
In regards to the elimination of ancient Christian communities (communities experiencing catastrophic reductions in numbers in the Middle East1), Kerry stated:
“Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith; that it executed 49 Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya; and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery….Daesh has made a systematic effort to destroy the cultural heritage of ancient [Christian] communities – destroying Armenian, Syrian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic churches; blowing up monasteries and the tombs of prophets; desecrating cemeteries; and in Palmyra, even beheading the 83-year-old scholar who had spent a lifetime preserving antiquities there.”2
The term genocide is based on the Greek genos (people or nation) and the Latin suffix –cide (murder). The United Nations adopted the term in 1948 in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, often referred to as the Genocide Convention. The Convention defines genocide as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”3
Kerry’s calling the actions of Daesh “genocide” is an important first step. Perhaps it will inspire more concerted relief efforts to end such suffering. Maybe it will motivate more nations to engage in military action to protect minorities targeted by Daesh for extermination. Possibly Christianity will be able to survive after all in its ancient homelands.
However, despite being pleased with Kerry’s declaration, I have little reason to be optimistic in my expectations in regards to what happens next. As Samantha Power notes in her sobering book on American responses to genocide in the twentieth century, American domestic politics have trumped concerns for responding to genocide in every case. She argues that America has “never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.”4 In fact, in all the cases of genocide in the twentieth century – Armenia, Germany, Cambodia, Iraq, Rwanda, Serbia – no American president “has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence.”5 It was simply and tragically a matter of no one “prepared to invest the military, financial, diplomatic, or domestic political capital needed to stop it.”6
For the sake of those remaining Christians who continue to be targeted by Daesh for execution, and for all who hide and flee from their horrific rule, I can only hope and pray that Kerry’s words mean something more than just another example of history once again repeating itself.
4. Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York/London: Harper, 2007), xv.
5. Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York/London: Harper, 2007), xxi.
6. Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York/London: Harper, 2007), 508.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*