They buy and sell the women, using them as slaves. They kidnap children, even infants, and detonate them as bombs. As the Islamic State tightens its grip on Syria and Iraq, the horror of its atrocities reaches unimaginable depths. And what remains of Christianity in the Middle East is dying, massacred through the torture, displacement, and murder of an entire population.
Now, former Congressman Frank Wolf, R-Va., is calling on the U.S. government and the United Nations to declare the rampage a genocide. "Genocidal intent can clearly be seen in Islamic State's ideology and mission which is directed toward the creation of a global caliphate that has been purged of every man, woman, and child deemed to be an 'unbeliever' through either forced conversion or death," Wolf, now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, a Christian human rights group, wrote last week in a letter to President Obama. "In Iraq, this has manifested most clearly in the insurgency's actions against Christians and Yezidis. They have been killed, tortured, kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery, and forcibly removed from their territorial homeland."
Indeed, the stories coming out of Syria and Iraq about the plight of religious minorities there are more than soul-searing: they nearly defy credibility in their hideousness. A cover story in Sunday's New York Times Magazine, for instance, describes the abduction of a 3-year-old girl from her mother, and the separation of captives into "healthy" and "infirm" groups, a gesture chillingly reminiscent of the Holocaust. Often, there is a third group, comprised of women, soon to be sold as sex slaves.
Other reports are equally gruesome. The children born to these captured women, Wolf wrote, who are repeatedly raped by ISIS soldiers, and raised "to conform to the insurgency's interpretation of 'pure' Islam."
"ISIS has kidnapped and forcibly transferred the children of Christians and Yezidis, including children as young as seven months," Wolf added. "Reports indicate that these children are being intimidated and brainwashed in order to create the next generation of radical insurgents." For this reason, "it is imperative that the issue be brought immediately before the Security Council and that a declaration of genocide be made."
Wolf's entreaty stands on solid research, including a report based on interviews 21st-century Wilberforce conducted with 75 people in the region. The report quotes one Christian leader: "This is not just the end of Christianity, but the end of our ethnicity who have lived here for thousands of years." And a priest now living in Beirut told the Times, "We're afraid our whole society will vanish."
The Yezidi community – or what remains of it – is of particular concern, having been nearly decimated in 2014. Tens of thousands of Yezidis were driven from their homes by ISIS militants, and forced onto Mt. Sinjar, where hundreds of men were killed and women were brutally and systematically raped. According to the Wilberforce report, "Approximately 700 girls were held, including a 7-month-old who had been kidnapped from her family to be raised by IS. The girls were separated according to eye color, and members of IS were allowed to choose the young women according to personal preference."
The persecution of Christian and other minority groups by the Islamic State has, in fact, been described as "genocide" by any number of civil rights groups already, and the UN stated in a March report that IS "may have committed" genocide. President Obama also referred to genocide in draft legislation requesting the use of force against ISIS this past February.
But both the Obama administration and the U.N. have fallen short of issuing a formal accusation of genocide under the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment for the Crime of Genocide. Such a declaration could potentially permit the use of military force (if approved by the UN Security Council), said Antonia Chayes, a professor of international politics and law at the Fletcher School.
"Current support for U.S. bombing in Syria is based on collective self-defense invoked by Iraq," Chayes told me. "But the additional declaration of genocide could possibly add weight to arguments for military force placed before the UN Security Council."
For now, Wolf has proposed a six-point plan, which would include creating an oasis for religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain; support of the Kurdistan Regional Government's "efforts to build a context of civil discourse, freedom of religion, human rights protection and the inclusion of all minorities; education assistance for displaced Christians and Yezidis; and investigations and the prosecution of the Islamic state for crimes against humanity and genocide."
These are heroic goals, and certainly worth striving for. And Wolf is right that the United States can and must take a leading role.
But will it make any difference?
Abigail R. Esman, the author, most recently, of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands.