Thursday, May 5, 2016

The annihilation of cultural and religious heritage is genocide's autograph. Landscapes fashioned by monuments, buildings, and houses of worship are obliterated into rubble when blood-thirsty men wish to exterminate the souls--not just the bodies--of an entire people whom they hate.

Panelists share evidence of ISIS atrocities with
the international community from the chamber of
the UN Economic and Social Council.
A United Nations report published in 2014 expressly recognized the link between heritage destruction and atrocity crimes, and last week a UN congress meeting in New York brought this distressing feature into focus.

Titled Defending Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights: Stopping Mass Atrocities Against Christian and Other Believers, the UN congress revealed shocking first-hand evidence of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by ISIS against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.

The Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the UN assembled the international event in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's unexpected declaration last month that accused ISIS of committing genocide against Christians, Yazidis, and Shiite Muslims as that term is defined by the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and its enabling statute in the U.S., the Genocide Convention Implementation Act.

Carl Anderson, CEO of the 1.9 million member Knights of Columbus (K of C), the largest lay Catholic charitable organization in the world, testified that Christians, Yazidis, and other religious minorities have been repeatedly subjected to rape, murder, property confiscation, slavery, and forced expulsion by ISIS.

It is estimated the number of Christians has dropped from 1.5 million to 200,000 in Iraq, and from 1.5 million to 500,000 in Syria, Anderson declared to the international congress with a notable sense of urgency. He warned the community of nations that indigenous Christians with ancient ties to the region "are at risk of disappearing entirely," declaring that "[r]eligious minorities have an indisputable right to live in their homeland."

Along with attacks on religious minorities, jihadists have destroyed churches, monasteries, mosques, and shrines, including St. Elijah'sIraq' oldest Christian monastery; the al-Kabir Mosque in Aleppo, Syria; a Yazidi shrine in Sinjar, Iraq; and numerous Chaldean, Armenian, and Greek Catholic churches in Syria. The American Schools of Oriental Research's Cultural Heritage Initiatives regularly tracks these and other episodes of vandalism.

report titled Genocide Against Christians in the Middle East, which the K of C presented to the State Department in March and submitted to the UN congress last week, lists the names of 1,131 Christian victims murdered in Iraq. The nearly 300 page document specifically identifies 125 attacks directed against churches. An envoy sent by the charitable organization to Iraq in February spoke with 44 refugees, who supplied direct eyewitness testimony of atrocities that had been committed.

Attorneys L. Martin Nussbaum and Ian Spear, together with Catholic University law professor Robert Destro, authored a legal brief buttressing the Genocide report. They concluded that the evidence formed "probable cause to believe that ISIS has committed genocide, and that the Department of State should make a referral to the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice and the Security Council of the United Nations."

One congress panelist reminded the global participants that the preservation of cultural and religious heritage is important, but safeguarding human lives is even more urgent. Fr. Douglas Al-Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest, who held up a blood-stained shirt as evidence of his kidnapping and beating at the hands of jihadi extremists, asserted that the forced immigration of Iraqi Christians is causing Christianity to disappear in the region. While he said that outside observers might argue that Christianity should survive in Iraq "for a culture and historical reason," the cleric pleaded that the Christians of Iraq "are living and breathing human beings, not museum pieces."  "My people are losing hope," he worried aloud. "Soon we will be small enough for the world to forget about us completely."

Participants attending the UN Congress in NY.
A missionary in Aleppo, Sr. Maria de Guadalupe, told about the persecution of Syrian Christians, but she added, in the face of danger, they have courageously exclaimed, "The experience of death has made us understand the sense of life."

The brave and tearful voice of a young 15 year old Yazidi girl, meanwhile, described the repeated rapes she suffered, committed by the violent hands of ISIS militants after kidnapping the girl and her family two years earlier.

Panelist presentations concluded with Egyptian-American attorney and human rights advocate Jacqueline Isaac, Vice President of Roads of Success, describing horrific details of the enslavement, rape, and torture of women and girls, which can only be characterized as gruesome and inhuman. Isaac called for the perpetrators to be held accountable by the International Criminal Court.

The Vatican repeatedly has expressed grave concerns over genocide as well as its coupling to the destruction of heritage. It is therefore no surprise that the Holy See sponsored the UN congress. Referring specifically to the conflicts raging in Syria, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, Pope Francis in his most recent Christmas message called attention to the "atrocities" and the "immense suffering" that "do not even spare the historical and cultural patrimony of entire peoples." In July, the pontiff decried that "a form of genocide is taking place [in the Middle East], and it must end." In a speech delivered to the UN General Assembly in September, moreover, the pontiff emphatically professed:
I must renew my repeated appeals regarding to the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives, or by enslavement.
Among the many participants in last Thursday's congress were Ambassador Ufuk Gokcen of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; Lars Adaktusson, the European Parliament member responsible for the EP resolution condemning the mass murder of religious minorities by ISIS; and the parents of Kayla Mueller, an aid worker kidnapped and killed by ISIS in Syria.

The congress took place at a time when parallel legal efforts to curb terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria are in motion. They include the unanimously adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2199, which aims to restrict ISIS and Al Nusra Front from raising money by means of cultural heritage trafficking, oil smuggling, and kidnapping. The recently passed Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, likewise, is federal legislation that House and Senate leaders hope will curb smuggling of illegal Syrian artifacts into the U.S. That legislation awaits the signature of President Barack Obama before becoming law.

To help preserve lives and heritage in Iraq and Syria before they are wiped out, readers may contact In Defense of Christians, Roads of Success, the Knights of Columbus, or similar organizations that seek to help persecuted religious minorities in the region, which include Yazidis, Shia and Sunni Muslims, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabean-Mandeans, Kaka’e, Kurds, and Jews, as well as Assyrian, Chaldean, Syriac, Armenian, Catholic, Coptic, Evangelical, Melkite, and Orthodox Christians.

Video of the UN Congress on Defending Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights appears below, courtesy of United Nations Webcast.

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