There’s no question Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East. But is it genocide? Congress finally says yes.
In the mid-1940s, Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer born and raised in Poland, coined a name for what prior to the 20th century had been unthinkable. He combined the Greek word for “family,” “tribe,” or “race,” and the Latin word for “killing,” to describe events like the Nazi extermination campaign against his fellow Jews, Stalin’s starvation of millions of Ukrainians, and the Turkish cleansing of their Armenian and Assyrian subjects. The word: genocide.
Lemkin defined genocide as more than the “mass killings of all members of a nation.” Genocide, he suggested, was a “coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”
So in addition to physical attacks, genocide could also include “the disintegration of the political and social institutions” and attempts to suppress things like the culture, language, and of course, the religion of the targeted group.
Thus, even if individual members escaped the murderous assault, without their culture, language and religion, the group would effectively cease to exist.
It’s worth taking note of the role the persecution of Christians played in the development of Lemkin’s thinking about genocide. While Lemkin lost 49 family members in the Holocaust, his writing about genocide was actually triggered by the now long-forgotten 1933 massacre of Simele, in which the Iraqi government targeted its Assyrian Christian minority.
This is the same Christian minority who are the targets of ISIS’ murderous campaign against Iraqi Christians today. The question is: Will this time be different?
On March 14th the House of Representatives voted 393-0 to declare that the “Islamic State’s assaults on religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide.” While, as the Washington Post reported, the measure was expected to pass, even its supporters were surprised that it was unanimous.
The vote puts additional pressure on the State Department to certify that the Islamic State’s actions against Christians indeed constitute genocide. Congress is requiring the State Department to decide the issue one way or the other by today, March 17th.
However, according to the Associated Press, “Obama administration officials have cautioned that a legal review is still under way and said it is likely the Secretary of State John Kerry will not meet the deadline.”
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