WATCH | Iraqi Christians fear genocide by ISIS
One of the Middle East's oldest Christian communities is on the verge of extinction. For two thousand years, over a million Christians have called Iraq their home. In fact, prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, there were as many as 1.5 million Christians living in the country. But their numbers dwindled as Al-Qaeda’s violent campaigns against Christians forced many to emigrate to the West.
Then came ISIS. In June 2014, the terrorist group steamrolled through northern Iraq, taking control of Mosul -- the country’s second-largest city. It marked Christian houses with the letter “N,” for “Nazarene," the Arabic word for Christian. Churches were burned. Priests were murdered. Many Christians fled.
By some estimates, fewer than 250,000 remain in Iraq. Many now live in Ankawa, a historically Christian neighborhood in Erbil. Here most displaced families live in 14-by-8-foot long caravans and survive off of aid provided by churches and NGOs.
Mass atrocities, yes. But, genocide?
The persecution of Iraq’s Christians ignited a fierce debate over what to call it. Last year, at the urging of Christian leaders, the State Department used the term genocide. So did other foreign governments.
Defining the g-wordNow, Christian advocacy groups are calling on the United Nations to do the same.
The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group."
Michael Desch, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says the use of the term carries with it both a historical and legal imperative to act.
If you start calling something a genocide, it really ramps it up in terms of what you've got to do about it.
Signatories to the U.N. treaty on genocide, including the U.S., are obligated to “prevent and punish” the perpetrators.
In June 2016, U.N. human rights investigators concluded ISIS was committing genocide against the Yazidi people, a religious minority ISIS views as devil-worshipers.
Am I killing you because I am killing you, or am I killing you because you are a Yazidi, because you are a Christian?
The ‘jizya’ debate
The same U.N. report that found the Yazidis were victims of genocide, concluded ISIS did not intend to destroy the Iraqi Christian community.
Andrea Bartoli, international conflict resolution expert at Seton Hall University, says it’s very difficult to prove intent.
It doesn't square with the facts.
Andrew Walther, Vice President of Communications and Strategic Planning at the Knights of Columbus, says Iraqi Christians were never offered protection from ISIS. “The pushback was this idea that somehow ISIS would allow Christians to pay a tax ... as if the hundreds of thousands of people that fled ISIS could've just paid $40 a year and lived happily ever after,” Walther said.
Media outlets reported in 2014 that ISIS was giving Iraqi Christians the option of paying a traditional Islamic tax, known as a jizya, to avoid conversion or death. In other words, ISIS wasn’t trying to eradicate them.
Father Emanuel Adel Kallo, a Syrian Catholic priest who negotiated directly with ISIS over the fate of the 1,000 Christians left in Mosul 2014, says offers to pay a tax were a ploy.
“They controlled us. They could have taken our women, or killed us, or forced us to leave our Christianity and to join their religion. This is one of the things we refused to do,” Emanuel said.
His fears weren’t unfounded. A price list circulated among ISIS fighters for Yazidi and Christian sex slaves was later authenticated by the United Nations special envoy on sexual violence in conflict.
“To say, ‘these people didn't suffer genocide because they offered this thing that never materialized and was totally mis-defined,’ is just insult to injury,” Walther said.
Taking back what was theirs
In October 2016, an Iraqi-led coalition launched a campaign to retake Mosul, as well as the surrounding Nineveh province from ISIS. But for many of Iraq’s Christians, returning to their home villages is difficult.
“I have no hope that we could live good in Iraq, Iraq isn’t going to be stable,” Yousef, a displaced Iraqi Christian living in Ankawa told Circa.