Is There Really a ‘Christian Genocide’ in Syria and Iraq?
Policy + Politics

Is There Really a ‘Christian Genocide’ in Syria and Iraq?


Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz last week made headlines when they proposed that the U.S. should only admit Christian refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria. There was substantial backlash to the suggestion that individuals’ religions should be a factor in determining who was worthy of being granted refugee status, including a rebuke from President Obama, who called a “religious test” un-American.

Cruz and Bush argue that Christians are the victims of genocide at the hands of ISIS. Indeed, like other minorities, they have been tortured, beheaded, and eliminated throughout the Middle East including Syria by radical Islam.

In February, the U.S. led coalition struck northeast Syria where ISIS terrorists abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the air strikes targeted ISIS fighters near the town of Tel Tamr, where the terrorists had captured 10 Assyrian villages.

Other Christians would be asked to convert to Islam or pay an exorbitant tax. If they refused to convert or couldn’t pay, they’d be killed.

But most of the 215,000 civilian deaths in Syria have been Muslims, not Christians. They’ve been killed at the hands of the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad who wants to eliminate all opposition to his regime. He allowed Christians to leave the country and more than one third have left for Lebanon and other more tolerant Mideast countries.

But GOP candidates – particularly Bush – have continued to press the “Christians only” policy. Bush has repeatedly said that it is a simple matter to distinguish real Christians from Muslims.

 “You can tell when someone is a Christian in the Middle East, I can promise you that,” Bush told a New Hampshire radio host Tuesday. “By name, by where they’re born, by their birth certificates, there are ample means by which to know this.”

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Bush’s claim that positive identification of Christians is easy flies in the face of the prevailing GOP rhetoric that it is impossible for the U.S. to verify the real identity of refugees coming from Syria. The standard talking point, frequently articulated by Republican frontrunner Donald Trump and echoed by other candidates, is, “We have no idea who they are.”

They cite the lack of databases and intelligence sources in Syria as evidence that U.S. screeners can’t trust the administration’s claim that Syrian refugees are being adequately vetted. Of course, that would be equally true of someone presenting an ID with a “Christian”-sounding name as of someone with a Muslim one.

If it seems strange that Republican candidates continue to press a “Christians only” policy that conflicts with their other claims, an explanation might be found in the growing anger among the overwhelmingly Republican-leaning Christian right over a rumor that the Obama administration may not seek to have the United Nations classify the persecution of Christians in ISIS-controlled territory as genocide.

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This month, investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, writing for Yahoo News, reported that the State Department was preparing a report that would describe the ISIS attacks on Iraq’s Yazidi people earlier this year as attempted genocide, but would call relegate attacks on Christians to the less-serious category of “crimes against humanity.”

The distinction is a fairly legalistic one, based on the vague wording of the United Nations 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The UN convention requires the actions taken against a group of people to be “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” in order to qualify as genocide. Acts of mass murder, expulsion of specific groups from geographic regions and more that don’t show that specific intent can still be classified as crimes against humanity, but don’t reach the level of genocide.

This is may be a distinction, but to many people it’s one without a difference. Genocide and crimes against humanity feel, understandably, more or less equally heinous.

However, successfully seeking to have the UN to declare a group or government guilty of genocide requires meeting the standards laid out in that convention, and according to Isikoff’s reporting the State Department doesn’t believe it can make the case.

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The Administration isn’t alone. A detailed report issued recently by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide meticulously enumerated the atrocities ISIS has committed against various minority populations in Iraq and Syria, including Christians, but only identified the Yazidi as genocide victims.

When Isikoff reported that the State Department might not seek to have Christians specified as a group subject to ISIS genocide, there was a substantial backlash from the Christian right. Additionally, more than 100 members of Congress have backed a bill demanding that the U.S. declare the persecution of Christians in ISIS-controlled territory genocide.

A special report in The New York Times, “Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?” sums up the political problem: It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents — Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal — to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations” narratives the West is accused of embracing.”

Candidates like Bush and Cruz who push a “Christians only” refugee policy may be exploiting a minor legal distinction for political gain. But there is no disputing that they are also clearly benefiting from real anger among elements of the GOP base that will see a failure to call out ISIS for Christian genocide as a major issue to be debated on the national stage.