Breda O’Brien: Time to recognise genocide against Christians

EU should follow Lithuania’s lead rather than cowardice and expediency of US

An Armenian Orthodox woman prays at the Syrian Saint Sarkis Church during Christmas celebrations on January 6, 2016 in Damascus. AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA

Genocide is a specific legal term. If something is classified as genocide, it imposes a responsibility to act on both individual states and the international community.

This includes the responsibility to prevent genocide where possible, to defend communities under attack, and to prosecute under international law those responsible.

It appears a draft resolution will be tabled for the next plenary session of the European Parliament early next month in order to classify as genocide the atrocities committed by Islamic State against Christians, Yazidis and other religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Opinion is divided, and not just in the European Parliament.


US presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Martin O'Malley all have used the term "genocide" to describe the situation. And of course, Donald Trump is very happy to do so.

The Obama administration is willing to classify the attempts to exterminate the Yazidis as genocide, but will not use the term for Christians.

Similarly, Prince Charles believes the persecution of Christians and others constitutes genocide, while David Cameron’s government is reluctant to agree.

The reluctance arises from a number of factors, including expediency.

Dire consequences

In the case of the US, successive administrations have ignored the dire consequences for Christians resulting from American foreign policy.

Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Pio Laghi in 2003 to plead with George Bush not to declare war on Iraq, because a drawn-out war resulting in major casualties would be inevitable. He told the president the region would be destabilised, racial and ethnic tensions would escalate, and a greater gulf between Christians and Muslims would be created.

George Bush did not listen.

As a Sunni imposing his will on the Shia majority in often brutal ways, Saddam Hussein believed that, as another minority, Christians were useful to him. When Saddam was toppled, the days of relative security ended for Christians. They are now in grave danger of being completely wiped out in parts of Iraq.

The Middle East is a highly complex region, with rapidly shifting alliances. In a useful piece in the Atlantic in March 2015, Martha Crenshaw describes the changes in relationships among militant Islamic fundamentalist groups, for example tracking how Islamic State moved from being affiliates of al-Qaeda to rivals.

Christians have also sometimes reluctantly allied themselves politically to vicious rulers such as Bashar al-Assad because there is no better alternative.

The African proverb declares that when elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled. Christians have often found themselves in the position of the grass.

While George Bush might been unwilling to accept the dire consequences Cardinal Laghi predicted, the Obama administration refuses to classify actions against Christians as genocide.

In contrast, others are willing to exploit the difficulties of Christians in order to discriminate against Muslims, for example, advocating allowing only Christian refugees into their countries. Not only is this an unchristian approach, it ignores the reality that the majority of victims of Islamic State are Muslims.

The Sunni/Shia divide dates back to the seventh century, to a dispute over who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the Islamic community.

To state that Muslims have been divided ever since is reductionist. In many countries, the Sunni and Shia factions intermarried and intertwined. However, to say that theological disputes play no part at all, and that it is simply all about power and oil, is equally simplistic.

Islamic State grew from the Sunni faction, and mercilessly persecute the Shia, as well as any Sunni they believe fails to meet Islamic standards. Obviously, Christians are not the only victims. But they are being systematically targeted.

The UN definition of genocide requires the actions taken against a group of people to be “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”.

How else would you classify the expulsion from places they have inhabited for centuries, the forced conversion, rape and enslavement of women and children, torture, beheadings and massacres of Christians and others except as genocide?

Lithuania has already passed a parliamentary resolution calling for these crimes to be recognised as genocide.

The resolution quotes the statement in March 2015 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, regarding "Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, Sabea-Mandeans, Kaka'e, Kurds and Shia", which states that "it is reasonable to conclude that some of those incidents may constitute genocide. Other incidents may amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes".

While indiscriminate bombing from on high is not the answer, if the international community looked at the region not in terms of its strategic importance but of human rights, the need to protect would be obvious. Might it be too much to ask that the EU follow Lithuania’s lead?

Isn’t it time that “never again” stopped meaning “again and again”?