In a press statement yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry did what many human rights activists have been asking him to do for months: he called ISIS’s treatment of Christians and other religious minorities “genocide.” Kerry’s statement came as a surprise. For months, the State Department had been hinting that, although it believed that ISIS’s treatment of Yazidis qualified as genocide, it was not prepared to use that word to refer to the group’s treatment of Christians. In fact, as late as Wednesday, in response to a looming congressional reporting deadline, the State Department indicated it would need more time to decide what to do.

State had been reluctant to use the word “genocide” with respect to Christians for a few reasons—all of them bad. First, ISIS’s treatment of Christians was said to differ from its treatment of other religious minorities. In theory, ISIS, also known by its Arabic acronym, “Daesh,” allows Christians to remain unmolested as long as they pay the jizya and comply with the other terms of the dhimma, the notional agreement that offers protection to “People of the Book.” By contrast, Yazidis, whom ISIS considers idolaters, receive no such protection. They must convert or die.

This distinction is specious. By contemporary human rights standards, the dhimma is quite oppressive. It’s silly to present it as a workable modus vivendi for religious minorities in the twenty-first century. Besides, as Nina Shea and others have documented, in practice ISIS routinely ignores the dhimma and engages in a systematic campaign of murder, rape, enslavement, and expulsion against Christians. Its activities, reminiscent of the last great wave of anti-Christian persecution in the region 100 years ago, clearly qualify as genocide as that term has come to be understood in contemporary law. ISIS manifestly aims “to destroy” Christians, “in whole or in part,” as a “religious group.”

Second, much of the evidence for genocide was said to remain hidden in ISIS-occupied territory, inaccessible to human rights observers. Without direct access, how could one be sure what was happening? It’s not necessary to be physically present, however, to know that ISIS is engaged in a campaign to drive out Christians (or murder them) and erase their culture. ISIS declares its intentions openly and makes videos to document its activities.

Finally, there was the longstanding worry that speaking out on behalf of Christians would appear sectarian and embarrass American goals in the region—and might actually work to Christians’ detriment. There is something to this. Mideast Christians often suffer from their association with Christians in the West. And Western intervention often occasions disaster for them (see: the Iraq War). But the situation is truly dire for Mideast Christians at the moment. Any marginal detriment would go unnoticed in the context of the overwhelming catastrophe they face.

Some may be inclined to dismiss the Secretary’s statement, but that would be wrong. True, in terms of legal consequences, the statement seems weak. “I am neither judge, nor prosecutor, nor jury with respect to the allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing by specific persons,” Kerry said. “Ultimately, the full facts must be brought to light by an independent investigation and through formal legal determination made by a competent court or tribunal.” Meanwhile, the United States will “collect, document, preserve, and analyze the evidence of atrocities,” and “do all we can to see that the perpetrators are held accountable.” In essence, he seems to be saying, the US will monitor the situation and refer for prosecution, either in the US or at an international tribunal, specific persons it determines to have engaged in genocide, and these people may eventually be convicted—assuming, of course, we can get our hands on them at all.

All this seems a bit remote. Candidly, ISIS’s leaders and operatives do not worry overmuch about legal process, in the US or elsewhere. Threatening to prosecute them is unlikely to deter them from their campaign to restore the caliphate. But law is not the most important criterion for judging Kerry’s statement. The statement has an important moral valence. “I hope,” Kerry said, “that my statement today will assure the victims of Daesh’s atrocities that the United States recognizes and confirms the despicable nature of the crimes that have been committed against them.” Moreover, by highlighting the gravity of the situation, the statement may make it easier for human rights advocates to lobby the US and international organizations to offer needed humanitarian and financial assistance to Christians and other religious minorities. It may make it easier to convince the US and other Western countries to offer asylum to Christian and other religious refugees.

Yesterday’s statement was a welcome development. Thanks must go, not only to Secretary Kerry, but to Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA), who led a bipartisan effort in Congress to get the State to designate the treatment of Mideast Christians as genocide, as well as human rights activists like Shea, who worked tirelessly to keep this issue on the national agenda. For a long time, it has seemed that the suffering of Mideast Christians was not a priority for the US. Perhaps that has begun to change.

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

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