Calls to declare the atrocities perpetrated against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East as genocide are mounting.
In one of the most recent attacks, four nuns were among 16 people killed on Friday at a retirement home set up by Mother Teresa in the Yemeni port city of Aden. The victims were handcuffed before being shot in the head, an attack Pope Francis described as “diabolical” at mass the following Sunday.
The killings are most prolific in areas of Iraq and Syria under Isis control, from where members of religious minorities are also fleeing. Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity, has warned Christianity is “on course to disappear from Iraq possibly within five years”. Open Doors, another Christian charity, estimates that only 250,000 Christians remain in Iraq out of a population in the 1990s of 1.2 million.
The European parliament last month unanimously backed a resolution asserting that Islamic State was committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities.
In the UK, dozens of MPs meanwhile signed an early day motion saying that “the beheadings, crucifixions, shootings, burnings, other murders, torture, rape and extensive violence being perpetrated by Daesh or IS against Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq on the basis of religion and ethnicity … clearly falls within the definition of genocide”.
In the US, Hillary Clinton added her voice to the calls. When a voter at a town hall meeting before the New Hampshire primary asked if she would call what was happening in the Middle East a genocide, Clinton said: “I will, because we now have enough evidence.”
There was a campaign, she added, “deliberately aimed at destroying not only lives, but wiping out the existence of Christian and other religious minorities in the Middle East in territories controlled by Isis”.
Genocide resolutions have been introduced to the US Congress. And last year Pope Francis, speaking about the Middle East, said: “In this third world war, waged piecemeal, which we are now experiencing, a form of genocide is taking place.”
If a genocide was declared, the international community – which carries collective guilt over its failure to recognise the Rwandan genocide in 1994, in which an estimated 800,000 people were killed in 100 days – would face a moral expectation to take action to halt it and punish the perpetrators. The UN security council would be likely to be called on to refer the matter for investigation by the international criminal court for possible war crimes prosecutions.
The UN 1948 convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide states: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, listing killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to destroy the group in whole or in part, preventing births and the forcible transfer of children.
But some tread carefully around the word. The US state department has been discussing for months whether to label Isis’s attacks against Yazidis a genocide, and has been lobbied vigorously to include Christians in their deliberations. But no decision has emerged, and the president, Barack Obama, has not used the word despite highlighting the “brutal atrocities” committed against religious minorities by Isis.
The UK government has also sidestepped the label genocide, saying that such a judgment is a matter for the international judicial system.
Neither the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, nor the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, has used the word genocide while condemning the systematic persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
One reason for caution may be a fear of adopting a Muslim-v-Christian narrative, which could exacerbate hostility to western governments and play into a perception of a “Christian crusade” against Islam. The numbers of Muslims fleeing the region is, of course, much higher.
And, for some, there are simply too many unknowns. Accurate data on the killing of Christians and members of religious minorities in Iraq and Syria by Isis is impossible to obtain.
Jens Meierhenrich, assistant professor of international relations and a genocide expert at the London School of Economics, told the Guardian: “Given what has been reported, it is plausible, even likely, that some genocidal acts have been committed against Iraqi and Syrian Christians on the basis of their group membership by certain actors, in certain theatres, at certain points in time. Some of these acts may even have been perpetrated as part of a series of genocidal campaigns.”
However, he added: “I would be reluctant to argue that a genocide has been perpetrated. By using the noun ‘genocide’ – rather than the adjective ‘genocidal’ – we run the risk of lumping together, intentionally or otherwise, all kinds of violent practices (from insurgent violence to political violence to terrorist violence) in the region that may, or may not, have been committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, Christians as a religious group.”
The 1948 convention insisted on a high burden of proof, said Meierhenrich. While it was undeniable that Christians had suffered grave atrocities at the hands of Isis, “at this moment in time, it is impossible to substantiate such a far-reaching (and politically portentous) claim, especially from afar and on the basis of very tentative evidence”.