(RNS) Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky famously said that President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech was a turning point for him and other prisoners in the Soviet gulag.
“For us, that was the moment that really marked the end for them, and the beginning for us,” recalled Sharansky in a 2004 interview.
He and fellow prisoners communicated the news between cells with taps on walls and toilets. They understood immediately that the truth about the Soviet Union would resound around the world: Reagan’s moral condemnation made indifference toward Soviet oppression unthinkable.
Chaldean Catholic priest Douglas al-Bazi, who serves refugees in Irbil, Iraq, is hoping for a similar signal on Thursday (March 17).
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That’s the deadline for the U.S. State Department to report to Congress on whether the systematic campaign by Islamic State militants against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities constitutes genocide.
Al-Bazi arrived in Washington last week to personalize the distant crisis for Washington policymakers. Not only has the priest witnessed terrorism escalate against the Christian community in Iraq, he has personally endured acute persecution. In 2006, while serving a parish in Baghdad, he was taken hostage, chained, blindfolded and tortured for nine days. Terrorists smashed his nose and broke his teeth with a hammer.
Not wanting to bring attention to these details after he was ransomed, he was silent for eight years about his brutal experience in captivity.
“But in 2014, what happened again with ISIS to my people, I said, ‘That’s it, we have to talk,’” explained al-Bazi.
He traveled to the United States this month for the release of a 278-page report documenting the extent of the atrocities against Christians in the Middle East. The report, a joint effort of the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus and the group In Defense of Christians, was prompted by a request from State Department officials for assistance in establishing that Christians are the victims of genocide.
To substantiate that claim, the report names 1,131 Christians killed and 125 churches that have been attacked by terrorists. It records dozens of victim and eyewitness accounts of destroyed or confiscated property, forced evacuations, kidnappings, rape, torture and murder. The document cites estimates that the Christian population in Iraq is now around 275,000, compared with 1.4 million in 2003.
Based on this evidence and the Islamic State group’s public statements calling for the elimination of Christians, the report presents a legal brief to establish genocide against Christians.
In December, Congress gave Secretary of State John Kerry 90 days to consult with human rights organizations and agency heads represented on the Atrocities Prevention Board, an interagency group created in 2012. The secretary is to report to relevant congressional committees his evaluation of attacks against Christians and people of other religions in the Middle East, and whether the “situation constitutes mass atrocities or genocide.” He is also to provide a detailed description of ways to prevent atrocities as recommended by the APB.
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As early as 2014, Kerry acknowledged in a press statement that the Islamic State group’s “grotesque and targeted acts of violence bear all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.”
But officials signaled earlier this week that Kerry’s official evaluation might not be submitted by the congressionally mandated March 17 deadline.
On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution that condemned the campaign against Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East as “crimes against humanity,” “war crimes” and “genocide.” The resolution called on all governments to do the same.
“What’s killing my people, there are two things,” said al-Bazi. “The sadness, because we feel we are alone. We feel that we are being forgotten … from the international community. And what we are looking for? Just actually to have a future. We just want to live in peace.”
Asked about the implications of not calling this evil genocide, al-Bazi was clear: “To not say the truth, this means you are giving to the terrorists a green light: Go ahead and kill the Christians.”
(Jennifer A. Marshall is a Heritage Foundation vice president and the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Fellow in the think tank’s Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity)