Just before Christmas 75 parliamentarians, from both Houses and all parties – including the former head of our Armed Forces, the ex-head of MI5, and former cabinet ministers – wrote to David Cameron urging him to declare the atrocities being committed against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities in Syria and Iraq as genocide.
Poignantly, the letter, which I also signed, was delivered as the world commemorated the centenary of the Armenian genocide, in which between 800,000 and 1.5 million Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Assyrian Christians lost their lives. It is impossible not to see today’s events as anything other than a continuation of that shocking story.
I recently read Franz Werfel’s harrowing and prophetic novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, published in 1933. It was based on a true story about the Armenian genocide. His books were burnt by the Nazis and banned in Turkey, no doubt to try to assist in the process of collective amnesia. (In 1939, the eve of the Holocaust, Hitler famously asked: “Who now remembers the Armenians?”)
Werfel – a Jewish writer who converted to Catholicism and also wrote The Song of Bernadette – tells the story of several thousand Christians who took refuge on the mountain of Musa Dagh (Moses Mountain). The Armenians were a remnant who fought back against the genocide and, without the dramatic intervention of the French navy, would have perished on the mountain.
An Armenian priest, Fr Bezdikian, whose grandfather had been involved in the siege, later remarked: “Franz Werfel is the national hero of the Armenian people. His great book is a kind of consolation to us – no, not a consolation, there is no such thing – but it is of eminent importance to us that this book exists. It guarantees that it can never be forgotten, never, what happened to our people.”
But how quickly we did forget the massacres, rapes, robberies, forced labour, desecrations, and deportation on death marches of women, children, the elderly
and infirm – all of which has an eerily and uncannily familiar ring to it today, as do the heartbreaking reports of Christian children starving to death.
In the same year that Werfel published Musa Dagh, and deeply affected by both the Armenian annihilation and the 1933 Simele massacre of Assyrian Christians in Iraq, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer, began to campaign for what he called an international law against barbarity. In 1943, during the Holocaust, when
49 of his own relatives had been murdered by the Nazis, Lemkin coined the word “genocide”, combining the Greek word genos, (“family, tribe or race”) and the Latin word caedere (“to kill”).
In 1948, Lemkin went on to draft the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide which the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted on December 9 of that year.
The signatories declared that they would never again tolerate any “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.
So is genocide what is happening today in Syria and Iraq – specifically to Christians and Yazidis? Pope Francis has said that it is – and so has Hillary Clinton, as well as Marco Rubio and most of the other Republican presidential hopefuls.
In our letter to the Prime Minister in December we said: “There is no doubt in our minds that the targeting of Christians and other religious minorities by Daesh [ISIS] falls within that definition.” We urged the British Government to seek agreement at the United Nations that we should name things for what they are.
We insisted: “This is not simply a matter of semantics. There would be two main benefits from the acceptance by the UN that genocide is being perpetrated…” The first is that those responsible would one day face a day of judicial reckoning, and the second is that it would require the 147 states that have signed the convention to “face up to their duty to take the necessary action to ‘prevent and punish’ the perpetrators.”
In response, the Foreign Office continues to trot out the tired old mantra: “It is a long-standing government policy that any judgments on whether genocide has occurred are a matter for the international judicial system rather than governments or other non-judicial bodies.”
This is a frustrating and circular argument. Which international courts and judges should decide, on the basis of what process, and in considering what evidence? And what steps are the government actually taking to ensure that those courts do indeed urgently consider the matter and reach a conclusion?
If there isn’t a process that we are willing to invoke at the UN, then the convention is just window-dressing and is an insult to the intention of the original drafters and ratifiers, as “never again” inevitably repeats itself over and over again.
To try to salve their consciences about this officials tell Parliament not to worry, because they are spending money “aimed at the prevention of incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes”.
But to what effect?
On the very day on which the Foreign Office issued that statement we learnt that ISIS had obliterated Mosul’s ancient, stone-walled monastery of St Elijah, dating from the 6th century, where monks had etched the words Chi Rho, the first Greek letters of the word Kristos, “Christ”.
This attempt to eradicate memory has been accompanied by the obliteration of Christ’s followers. Last year 200 Assyrian Christians in the Khabur River Valley in Syria were kidnapped. Jihadist websites showed graphic executions of some of the group, warning that others would be executed if the ransoms remained unpaid.
Last August the ancient St Eliane Monastery, founded more than 1,500 years ago in central Syria, was destroyed by ISIS – with dozens of Syriac Christians abducted, including Fr Jacques Mourad, abbot of the Syriac Catholic monastic community in Mar Musa. Held captive in Raqqa, he made a dramatic escape in disguise on a motorcycle several months later.
In Iraq, the Christian population has been devastated, with fewer than 300,000 Christians remaining – down from 1.4 million in 2003. Most of the remnant, from Nineveh, are struggling to survive in makeshift and intolerable conditions in Kurdistan.
And the fate of Syria’s Christians has been catastrophic. How deplorable it would be if Syriac-Assyrian Christians were now denied a place at the putative peace talks.
Along with the Yazidi community, Christians have been told to convert or die. Children have been seized, propagandised and indoctrinated with jihadist
Nina Shea, director of the Centre for Religious Freedom, says that children are drip-fed with “school textbooks that direct children to hate and kill the Nazarenes, that is, the Christians, and the Yazidis, condemned as ‘polytheists’ and ‘Devil worshippers’ respectively”. According to Shea and Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad”, 30 Muslim teachers are believed to have been arrested for refusing to teach from these texts.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) said in a report last month that it believes ISIS is holding around 3,500 slaves, mostly women and children, as hostages and that Islamists have committed acts that “amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide”.
The report says ISIS continues “to deliberately and wantonly loot and destroy places of religious and cultural significance” – anything which ISIS considers un-Islamic.
It added that ISIS “destroyed the Syrian orthodox al-Tahira church, in Mosul city, using bulldozers … it reportedly used explosives to destroy the Syriac Orthodox church in al-Muhaniseen area, east of Mosul … and removed historical inscriptions from the front of two churches – the Virgin Mary church and the Chaldean church – located in Doctor Street, central Mosul.”
And of the people? “UNAMI/OHCHR continues to have grave concerns for the welfare and safety of those held in ISIL [ISIS] captivity.”
On January 5, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said that these “perpetrators of gross violations and abuses of human rights and serious violations of international humanitarian law” must be “held accountable”.
But what action is the UN taking to instigate this process of accountability?
Those who have been abducted have been targeted specifically because they are different; because of their ethnicity; because of their religion. If this is not genocide, what is?
Our failure to name this genocide for what it is was raised in a motion, tabled by Rob Flello MP, last week in the House of Commons. The text rightly insists that “this disgusting behaviour clearly falls within the definition of genocide as determined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide”.
The motion – to which MPs can add their names – draws attention to the UN report, to the beheadings, crucifixions, shootings, burnings, other murders, torture, rape and extensive violence. It urges the British Government to ensure that “the provisions of the genocide convention are urgently, legitimately and effectively invoked and implemented”.
In the House of Lords I will be doing two things. First, on Wednesday, with Baroness Nicholson and Baroness Cox, I moved an amendment to the Immigration Bill, that victims of genocide should be given priority in asylum applications. This will be considered further in two weeks’ time. Secondly, I will be urging the Government to present the evidence of genocide to the UN – the names, the dates, the photographs of atrocities; the numbers killed, tortured, abducted or sold into sexual slavery; the accounts of forced conversions; the churches, shrines and manuscripts destroyed.
Why? So that those responsible are brought to justice.
We endlessly talk of something vaguely called “British values”. One value, one belief, that particularly marks us out from the ideology of ISIS is our belief in the rule of law.
As a signatory to the genocide convention, it is a dereliction of our duty to uphold international law if we do not take the action that should follow our signature, our voice and our military action.
Lord Alton of Liverpool is an independent crossbench peer, a board member of the charity Aid to the Church in Need and a founder of the Jubilee Campaign.
This article first appeared in the February 5 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here