Survivors, advocates of those persecuted by violent extremists because of religious belief and experts on genocide united on April 28 at an event entitled “Defending Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights: Stopping Mass Atrocities Against Christians and Other Believers,” sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN at the Economic and Social Chamber of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City on April 28.
“Sadly, even as we speak, the systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities in many parts of the world is very much ongoing,” Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, said in his opening remarks.
He said although the three-hour event could not do justice to the number of those suffering expulsion and extermination at the hands of terrorists, he said he hoped the dialogue would lead to further action by political and religious leaders and civil society to aid those in need.
“The magnitude and downright savage nature of what is going on requires the whole world to wake up and get involved,” he said.
Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen, the Permanent Observer of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to the UN, said Muslim leaders are working to discredit terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram who are “highjacking Islam.
“This is not a struggle between Muslims and Christians,” he said, “but a struggle between humanity and enemies of humanity.”
He added that Muslim leaders gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco in January and adopted a document that defends the rights of religious minorities in predominantly Muslim countries. The document is based on the Medina Charter, an ancient constitutional contract between Muhammad and the people of Medina, guaranteeing religious liberty to all regardless of faith, but will require the cooperation of local leaders in Muslim countries to implement, he said.
Protecting Victims of Persecution and Fostering Religious Freedom Worldwide
In the first panel, panelists focused on protecting victims and survivors of religious persecution and the importance of pluralism in fostering religious freedom in the world.
The violence by terrorist groups in the Middle East is the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War and the international community must act, according to Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, which has raised more than $10.5 million dollars in aid to refugees in the Middle East since 2014, and has advocated for designations of genocide by the United States Congress and the U.S. State Department.
“The United Nations can play a vital role in securing a future in the region that helps to preserve pluralism by protecting the victims and refugees, by ensuring the survival in the region of these ancient indigenous and religious communities, by punishing the perpetrators and by supporting the establishment of internationally agreed upon standards of justice, equality, rule of law and religious freedom,” he said.
Lars Adaktusson is a Swedish Member of the European Parliament who initiated the Parliament’s Resolution on the systematic mass murder of religious minorities by ISIS. He said that the free world has a responsibility to protect vulnerable groups persecuted for religious beliefs and that international political will is needed to confront ISIS.
“We have to overcome the fear to engage in a serious discussion on the roots of persecution of Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere,” Adaktusson said.
Thomas Farr, the Director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, commended groups and governments that have decried the violence by ISIS as genocide and have provided emergency aid to those displaced by the terrorist group, but said that finding long-term solutions for overcoming ISIS and planning for a post-ISIS Middle East that sustains pluralism, self-governance and stability in the region is quite complex.
“There are no easy solutions to the genocidal crisis we face in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “The only thing we can be certain about is that we cannot do nothing.”
Witnesses of the Mass Atrocities and Exodus of Christians and other Religious Minorities
For the second panel, survivors and those closely affected by violent extremism shared their testimonies. The panel was chaired by Ignacio Arsuaga, President of CitizenGo, one of two advocacy groups that co-sponsored the event with the Holy See.
Bishop Joseph Danlami Bagobiri, the Bishop of Kafanchan, Nigeria said the formerly flourishing churches in Nigeria are nearly extinct due to the persecution by Boko Haram and the Fulani Herdsmen. He said sincere interreligious dialogue, devoid of propaganda is needed to end religious extremism.
“Our fight is not against Islam or against Muslims,” he said. “Religious extremism as expressed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Iraq and Syria are to me sheer acts of criminality that must be condemned by all people of good will.”
Carl and Marsha Mueller, the parents of Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old American aid worker in Syria who was held in captivity by ISIS for 18 months before being killed in February 2015, brought the packed ECOSOC Chamber to tears with stories of the courage of their daughter.
They said that when they asked Kayla, a devout Christian, to return home because it was not her war or her people, and she did not need to die for it, she responded, “You are right, this is not my war. And any time the world is not responding to such things because it is not their concern, it becomes my concern.”
“There should be no ‘my people, your people’ mentality in this world,” she added. “There should be no greater value placed on anyone’s life for any reason.”
Since Kayla was killed, the Muellers have dedicated their lives to sharing their daughter’s story to “encourage the world to refuse to allow this suffering to become normal.”
Father Douglas Al-Bazi, a Chaldean priest of Erbil, Iraq who was captured and tortured by ISIS, said the Iraqi Christians displaced in refugee camps need more attention.
“This has not been a peaceful migration of people simply looking for a better life,” he said. “No, this migration has been forced, and in many cases, brutally so.”
Sister Maria de Guadalupe, an Argentine missionary in Syria, said that while the threat of death is a daily reality for Christians in the area, the Christians she serves have grown in unwavering faith.
“Christians are beheaded every day. Christians are crucified. Women are raped. Children are buried alive in front of their mothers,” she said. “But they want to give their lives before denouncing Christ.”
Christian and Yazidi Women and Girls: Sexual Victims of Crimes Against Humanity
The third panel conveyed the crimes against humanity, including sexual violence, that Yazidi and Christian women and girls are enduring at the hands of ISIS. The panel was moderated by Kirsten Evans, Executive Director of In Defense of Christians, a Washington, D.C.-based international advocacy group dedicated to protecting Christians in the Middle East, and the second co-sponsor.
Samia Sleman was 13 years old when her family was captured by ISIS in 2014, and spent six months and 12 days in captivity among thousands of Yazidi women and girls at ISIS headquarters in Tal Afar, Iraq before she escaped and migrated to Germany. She said that ISIS soldiers killed men and older women, including her mother, but kept girls as young as seven as sex slaves who may be sold or given as gifts to ISIS fighters.
She asked the international community for protection against ISIS, for open borders in this time of crisis, and for recognizing the actions of ISIS as genocide.
“We have seen terrible things happen to us minorities, especially the Yazidis and Christians in that region,” Sleman said. “But we don’t see the international community taken concrete actions against the Islamic State.”
Sexual violence against women and girls is an integral part of ISIS’ genocide methodology, as it is in most genocides, said Elisa von Joeden-Forgey, the Director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Masters Program at Stockton University and Vice President of the International Associate of Genocide Scholars. She visited refugee camps in Iraq to assess the violence by ISIS first-hand and said the Islamic State commits many forms of genocide, targeting Yazidis, Christians, Shabak Shia, and Turkmen.
“This combination of mass murder, sexualized violence, sexual enslavement, starvation, forced displacement, humiliation, plunder, the desecration of cultural symbols, and the kidnapping of children, has all the hallmarks of genocide,” she said.
Jacqueline Isaac, a humanitarian attorney and Vice President of Roads of Success, an advocacy group that supports persecuted minorities in the Middle East, said the international community has not done enough to aid the thousands of members of minority groups suffering death, mass sexual violence and other disturbing atrocities at the hands of ISIS.
“The survivors are calling on the world to save their ancient communities from complete destruction,” she said.
The event concluded with an unforseen intervention by Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo from the floor, who had flown in from the event. He said in Syria, Christians are caught in the middle of a civil war and are in grave danger of disappearing soon and added that the country needs to end the civil war and replaced the present situation with a democratic government that ensures the rights of all Syrians whose ancestors were born and buried in the country.
He said Christians in the region need more emergency response and support for long-lasting political and economic stability.
“If the war continues, and peace is not restored, all hope may be lost for all Syrians Christians and Muslims alike and violence and chaos will inevitably take hold in neighboring countries,” he said.