This statement addresses the grievous physical threats faced by Christians and other religious and ethnic groups targeted by state and non-state actors in several parts of the world. Atrocities, massacres, and acts of terrorism are significant in parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, and adherents of other religions have been mistreated in our country and in Europe. As we continue to hear Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, and as we hear from our Christian partners around the world, we pray for those under threat and support policies that uphold the ideals of human rights and religious freedom to which our Reformed faith has long contributed.
On March 17, 2016, the State Department determined that the massacres and other acts of violence by the so-called Islamic State, IS, or ISIL, amounted to a genocide of Christians, Yazidis, Shiites, and others in areas controlled by this group. Acts of genocide are those intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group …” (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948, Article 2). The State Department determination followed a resolution adopted by the House of Representatives (393-0; https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-concurrent-resolution/75): “Expressing the sense of Congress that the atrocities perpetrated by ISIL against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria include war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.” Another similar resolution condemned the government of Syria and its allies of war crimes. A range of church-related groups had asked for this determination to be made due to the religious dimension of violence in Syria and Iraq.
What does the grave designation of “genocide” mean for the Presbyterians and other people of faith and good will? And what responses should Presbyterians support?
- This increases our concern for Christians martyred and persecuted in the Middle East, and links their fate to that of other targeted religious groups. In consultation with our church partners in the region, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been aware of threats to Christian congregations and individuals in a range of countries for many years. The State Department has now determined that a specific extremist group is going beyond ethnic and religious expulsion (“cleansing”) and acts of terrorism to something more systematic. Yet similar concerns hold for parts of Nigeria or Pakistan, when “blasphemy” laws are used against Christians.
- The “genocide” designation increases the moral burden on countries, such as the United States, to take in refugees and asylum-seekers from the regions involved in this long period of warfare, dating to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March of 2003, and in Syria from initially peaceful protests in 2011. We may bear a moral burden to take in refugees for other reasons, but war is the immediate cause of these refugees fleeing: they are not violent people to be feared. We also know that some Christian and other targeted communities have been subject to kidnapping for ransom and horrifying mistreatment, and others have paid protection money to keep their homes and businesses. While we may want Christians to remain in difficult places, we know the decision to leave is never taken lightly.
- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) opposes all religious persecution and urges all Christians to understand the dynamics leading to persecution in particular contexts, aware that association with foreign powers (such as the U.S., or another country in the greater Middle East) may lead to targeting of religious or ethnic groups. The 220th General Assembly (2012) resolution, For Human Rights and Civic Freedom (https://www.pcusa.org/resource/human-rights-and-civic-freedom-movements/), affirmed the goals of religious freedom for Christians and other faiths in the midst of movements for democratic change in the Arab world, some of which have not gone well. Our partners in predominantly Muslim nations note that the category of religious “minority,” though offering some protection to Jews and Christians as “people of the book,” does not entail equal standing or religious freedom.
- With regard to Syria, the PC(USA) has cautioned that purported allies of the United States and opponents of the Assad regime also pose great threats to the Christian community and the Alawite minority in Syria. Thus the PC(USA) has supported a negotiated peace treaty involving all of the parties to what the 220th General Assembly (2012) called a “proxy war.” For example, Russia’s intervention protected the remaining Christian and other non-Sunni Syrians, while also hitting some groups supported by the U.S. and its Gulf state allies. The role of regional powers and outside money and arms has made a settlement more difficult and limited the effectiveness of United Nations efforts. We steadfastly oppose torture, chemical warfare, and atrocities by any parties to this terrible conflict.
- Our church’s careful “Humanitarian Intervention” policy (Item 3 below) cautions against indiscriminate use of military measures even when force is deemed necessary to prevent greater suffering. In the current case of Syria and Iraq, such force should be guided by the goal of establishing peace and order and supporting an international justice process as swiftly as possible.
- Along with the acceptance of refugees, the PC(USA) supports an increase in humanitarian foreign aid to the region and efforts to end the violence.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance provides assistance to congregations sponsoring refugees who resettle in the United States and to our international church partners who first receive refugees: https://pda.pcusa.org/situations/international/.
The Office of Public Witness faithfully advocates for greater welcome for refugees: http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/2016/03/urgent-action-today-tell-house.html.
The Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations faithfully advocate with the U.S. government and within the UN community for an increase in international support for refugees and for negotiated political settlements to the situations that drive our sisters and brothers from their homes.
These points reflect the seriousness of our church’s efforts to protect Christians and other religious and ethnic groups targeted for violence and oppression. These religious tensions do not come out of nowhere. The State Department and Department of Defense often could benefit from a better understanding of the impact of military policies on religious groups, and of the differences among religious groups. Christian and other faith leaders can often help reduce violence and build reconciliation if their roles are respected. This is an area where my responsibility, as Stated Clerk and chief ecumenical representative of our denomination, is to witness to the “Gospel of Peace” (Eph. 6:15), to justice through international law, and to solidarity with God’s people across the world.
What the General Assembly has said about Responding to Terrorism and Genocide and supporting religious freedom and human rights:
- The U.S. “genocide” determination requires United Nations support for international sanctions to be mobilized, based on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Dec. 9, 1948), and its application to a group that, despite holding territory, remains a non-state actor. This would also mean bringing those responsible for genocide before the International Criminal Court for prosecution. The PC(USA) has advocated U.S. participation in the Court, but as yet the U.S. does not subscribe to this international covenant. The Presbyterian General Assembly supported the Genocide treaty at various points, notably in 1983, and President Reagan signed that treaty in 1988, but the U.S. has not yet allowed its own personnel to be subject to any international human rights-related enforcement.
- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has addressed the issue of large-scale terrorism in the 2004 resolution, Resolution on Violence, Religion, and Terrorism (https://www.pcusa.org/resource/resolution-violence-religion-and-terrorism/), stating: “The General Assembly proclaims as PC(USA) policy that our moral criteria of both just peacemaking and justifiable war (Helvetic Confession, Westminster Confession) find terrorism whether state, group, or individual as immoral because it wrongfully and deliberately attacks innocent civilians” (p. 4). The designation of genocide identifies a particular set of innocent civilians, but the principle remains the same. In the case of the recent State Department determination, it is not clear what additional measures are planned beyond the current (undeclared) air war and logistical support for various forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
- In the case of Bosnia (1995), the designation of a genocide meant intervention, spurred on by the sense that the world community had failed in its “responsibility to protect” the 800,000, mainly Tutsi, massacred in Rwanda (1994). After considerable study and debate, the 210th General Assembly (1998) addressed these events in Just Peacemaking and the Call for International Intervention for Humanitarian Rescue (https://www.pcusa.org/resource/resolution-just-peacemaking-and-call-international/). Just Peacemaking initiatives are “intended to preclude the circumstances which deteriorate into genocidal, civil, or international conflict” (p. 1). That resolution recommends criteria for military response to mass violence or war for the purposes of “peacekeeping, peace building, and peace enforcing.”
- The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has expressed appreciation for the work of the U.S. government as well as advocacy groups in seeking to hold all governments accountable to recognized standards of religious liberty and human rights, including allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel whose behavior influences religious attitudes around the world. Clearly there are closed, autocratic societies, such as North Korea, over which the U.S. has less influence but which may also contribute to extremism and targeting of Christians and other groups. See the State Department reports and a summary: