There's no question Christians are being persecuted in the Middle East. But is it genocide? Congress finally says yes.
Editor's note: This morning Secretary of State John Kerry declared that ISIS is committing genocide against Christians and other religious minorities.
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."
Of course, even if they did meet the deadline and agreed with the House resolution, it's not clear what the practical consequences would be. The last time Congress declared something genocide was in 2004, specifically Sudan's actions in Darfur. The Bush administration agreed, but as the Washington Post put it, didn't conclude that the designation required any specific action.
Even if that's the case this time, a declaration of genocide combined with the unanimous action of the House would send a powerful signal to our brethren in the region that they are not forgotten.
It would also be an important correction to the Administration's odd reluctance to recognize the severity of what Christians in the Middle East and in the rest of the world are confronting. The reluctance is especially conspicuous because President Obama's U.N. ambassador, Samantha Powers, literally wrote the book on genocide, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winning, "A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide."
But even with a positive response from the State Department, it will be up to western Christians to make sure that their brethren overseas are not forgotten. As Lemkin's own story reminds us, proving that something terrible is happening is the easiest part — getting people to care enough to do something about it, that's what's truly difficult.
Originally posted at breakpoint.org.