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US government recognises genocide of Christians in Syria and Iraq: The West must not now repeat its failure to protect Jews from the Holocaust

17 March 2016

Today US Secretary of State John Kerry finally announced that the US government accepted that genocide is happening amongst Christians and other non Muslim minorities in Syria and Iraq. We warmly welcome this news, but words must now be followed by actions without any further delay.

In the first century Christianity spread across the Middle East and beyond. The Armenian Church traces its origin to the missionary work of the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus, while the church in Iran, Pakistan and India traces its origins to the apostle Thomas. Yet in little over a century the Christian population of the Middle East has fallen dramatically from what it once was. Before the First World War 22% of the population of Turkey were Christians, today it is around 0.2%.  One of the principal causes for this dramatic decline has been genocide and religious cleansing. There have actually been at least nine genocides of Christians in this region in the last 175 years. The worst, which peaked in 1915 involved the massacring and forced deportation of almost the entire Christian population of Turkey. It is estimated between two and three and half million Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians died either by being killed directly or through being forced on the death march into the Syrian desert.

Today, Christians in Syria and Iraq are again facing genocide. Indeed, many of those fleeing from IS are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who survived the death march in 1915. In Iraq the number of Christians has fallen from an estimated 1.3 million in 2003 down to less than 300,000 now. In Syria, before the civil war began almost exactly five years ago, there were an estimated 2.2 million Christians.

Since the second Iraq war in 2003 Christians in Iraq, particularly in the North have come under increasing pressure to leave the country. They have faced kidnapping and ransom demands and targeted violence. Churches have been bombed and Islamists have seized property belonging to Christians. The Western world largely ignored this. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of Islamic State is believed to have been behind a significant part of the anti-Christian intimidation and violence.

The outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011 allowed jihadist groups to spread to Syria. Whole Christian communities began to be specifically targeted, churches were deliberately destroyed, Christian houses and businesses were confiscated by Islamic State, before being either “allocated” to IS members or auctioned off. Christians who did not flee were held for ransom, forced into exile, enslaved, forced to accept dhimmi status or in some instances executed. Christian leaders have for several years now warned that they are facing an attempt to remove the entire Christian community from the region. In September 2014 Mosul's Syriac-Orthodox Archbishop Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf pleaded for the United Nations to “recognise genocide against Christians.” A year later, in October 2015, the Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo Jean-Clement Jeanbart, told a UK newspaper that:

“If nothing is done, it is not impossible that all the Christians in Syria may be wiped out.”

The archbishop added that more than 1,000 Christians had been murdered or abducted in the city of Aleppo alone.

And yet till now Western governments have refused to use the term “genocide” and in a haunting echo of the lead up to the Holocaust, have been far too slow to recognise what is happening and take action. It is worth reminding ourselves of some of the mistakes made by Western nations in the 1930s and early 1940s when the Holocaust in which six million people ultimately died was beginning, many of whom could have been saved if Western nations had acted sooner. If we take the USA as an example:

  1. There was for far too long an unwillingness to recognise that the Nazis planned to exterminate the Jews. In August 1942 the US State Department received a cabled report revealing the Nazi’s plan to murder Europe’s Jews. Not only did they keep it secret, they also pressurised a key American Jewish leader not to reveal its contents after he had learned of it from the British government. Today we see a similar unwillingness to recognise the genocide of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities at the hands of Islamic State and other jihadists.
  2. Much of the Western press was also reluctant to criticise the Nazi regime. For example, The New York Times consistently deemphasised the murder of the Jews in its news reporting. In the same way today, we see newspapers that still refuse to accept that there is any link between Islam and the actions of jihadist groups such as Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. For example, only last week the Tornoto Sun announced that it would no longer refer to “Islamic State” on precisely these grounds.
  3. In the 1930s there was a real reluctance to take Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution in Germany. There was a popular fear after the depression of the 1930s that refugees would take American jobs. The government responded by requiring those seeking entry to the USA from Germany to produce a large number of documents, including a certificate of good conduct from the German police, which was almost impossible for those fleeing Nazi persecution to obtain.  The result was that although the US government had a quota for the number of German Jews it would accept, until 1938 even that small number was not reached. We are seeing a remarkably similar pattern today. Western governments have announced small quotas of refugees they will take from Syria. However, less than 2% of those accepted by US and British governments are Christians. This is despite the fact that that ten percent of the Syrian population are Christians and it is indisputable that Christians and other Non-Muslims are being targeted in ways that Muslims are not, including forced conversion to Islam and enslavement.
  4. The response to the refugee crisis in the 1930s was slow and inadequate. In response to mounting public pressure, President Franklin D Roosevelt proposed an international conference at Evian in France to discuss the European refugee crisis.  However, the invitation stated that: “no country will be expected …to receive a greater number of immigrants...”. Yet again the parallels are all too painfully obvious with the current refugee crisis…
  5. In 1940 the US government began restricting the flow of Jewish refugees even further by ordering US consuls to delay visa approvals on national security grounds. While after the US entry to the war in December 1941, just as the Holocaust entered it most brutal and systematic stage, it stopped granting visas altogether. Yet, the one group of Germans who presented absolutely no security threat whatsoever to Western countries were Jews fleeing the Holocaust. This is exactly the same mistake that is being made again today as Western governments rightly worry about the security implications of allowing entry to large numbers of refugees from Syria and Iraq. Yet it is absolutely clear that there is no risk whatsoever of any Christians fleeing IS being jihadists!
  6. Even after the Polish underground informed President Franklin D Roosevelt in July 1943 of the reports of mass murder they had received from Jewish leaders of the Warsaw ghetto, the US government still failed to initiate any immediate action aimed at rescuing or providing safe haven for refugees. Yet again, there was a failure to act until for many, many Jews it was simply too late.
  7. After the defeat of the Nazis, the US and British governments were guardians of more than five million displaced persons (DPs) in Germany, Austria, Italy and Czechoslovakia, including quarter of a million Jews. However, Jews and non-Jews were initially placed together in the same camps with the result that Jewish victims of the holocaust were sometimes forced to reside with people who held violently anti-Semitic views and in some cases with those who had actually carried out the Holocaust. Today we are seeing a tragically similar situation with Christians placed in refugee shelters in Europe, alongside people who express strongly anti-Christian sentiments and seek to enforce shari’a  or even expel Christians from refugee camps. Christian refugees fleeing IS have even on occasion recognised other refugees as being jihadists who had persecuted them in Syria or Iraq.

The Western nations cannot claim that they do not know what is happening to the Christian and other non-Muslim populations of the Middle East. In fact, the very term ‘genocide’ was coined in 1944 by the Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin who had himself fled the Holocaust, as he reflected on a previous genocide of Christians in this very region.

The cost of ignoring the lessons of history is high. In 1939 as Hitler planned the invasion of Poland he ordered death squads to be ready to kill the Poles, announcing that they had orders:

“..to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language…”

He then added: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Who after all remembers the genocide of Eastern Christians - Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks that took place a century ago? Western governments on the whole politely ignored the centenary of its worst massacres in 2015. Who after all remembers the failure of Western governments to act before it was too late in the Holocaust?

There are nations that do remember their history. Poland and the Czech Republic remember – and have taken part in our Operation Safe Havens programme by resettling specifically Christian refugees fleeing Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Yet other Western governments seem intent on repeating the mistakes of the 1930s and early 1940s as the Holocaust unfolded.

At the end of the day the US government recognised what was happening to the Jews because of public pressure.

We therefore warmly welcome the announcement made today by US Secretary of State John Kerry that the US government now recognises that genocide is occurring amongst Christians and Yazidis at the hands of Islamic State. However, an announcement on its own is not sufficient, action is now needed to provide safe havens for Christians and other non-Muslims fleeing Islamic State.

At the beginning of February, Barnabas Fund launched a petition calling on Western governments to recognise the genocide that is currently happening among the Christians in Syria and Iraq. We still need not just words but specific action. Please sign this petition, get your friends and fellow church members to sign it, write to your member of parliament, do what you can and above all pray that governments follow up their words with practical actions that genuinely help Christians and others fleeing genocide in Syria and Iraq.