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As Christians Flee, Governments Pressured To Declare ISIS Guilty Of Genocide


And on this Christmas Eve morning, a story about Christianity. It was born in the Middle East 2,000 years ago and has mostly flourished there ever since. But now the Christian population is dropping, especially in areas where Islamic State fighters are targeting religious minorities. At least 1,000 Christians have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled. Yesterday, President Obama said he is praying for Christians in the Middle East. There is pressure on world leaders to say even more, that ISIS is guilty of genocide. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: ISIS goes after any group that deviates from its extreme ideology, dissident Muslims, for example, or the Yazidis who practice an ancient religion distinct from both Islam and Christianity. When ISIS last year called for the destruction of the Yazidi people, President Obama said that would constitute genocide and he ordered U.S. forces to keep it from happening. Human rights advocates say Christians now face a similar threat Nina Shea directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

NINA SHEA: There's no doubt about it that Christians have fled from terror, that they had really no other option but to convert or die.

GJELTEN: Last month, the Holocaust Museum said ISIS has carried out genocide against the Yazidis, but its investigation did not cover Christian persecution. Now there's concern the U.S. State Department might do the same, limiting any genocide pronouncement to Yazidis without mentioning Christians. At a recent congressional hearing, Bishop Francis Kalabat complained that administration officials are overlooking what's happening to his fellow Chaldean Christians.

FRANCIS KALABAT: They rightly mention atrocities committed in Iraq against the Yazidis, absolutely, and they are horrific. But there are also atrocities of rape and killings and crucifixions, beheadings, hangings that the Syrian and Iraqi Christians have endured. And they are intentionally omitted.

GJELTEN: Administration officials, in fact, have repeatedly condemned ISIS for its treatment of religious minorities, including Christians. But a bipartisan resolution now moving through Congress calls on the administration to go further and say ISIS is guilty of genocide. A similar move is underway in the British Parliament. Earlier this month, more than 30 religious leaders and scholars wrote Secretary of State John Kerry asking for a meeting to discuss what's happening to Christians and other minorities. Nina Shea organized the effort.

SHEA: We are trying to brief him the way that a Jewish group briefed President Roosevelt during the Holocaust to alert so that people can't say that they didn't know.

GJELTEN: The letter writers span the spectrum from left to right. Members say they don't want this to become a partisan political issue. In fact, there are reasons administration officials have been cautious in making a genocide declaration. They don't want to feed an ISIS narrative that there is a religious war between Islam and the Christian West, plus genocide is carefully defined under international law. State Department lawyers need to have the evidence to back up the charge before they make it. Here's Nebraska Republican Jeff Fortenberry questioning Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson at a House hearing last month.

JEFF FORTENBERRY: This deliberate systematic attack on Christians and other faith traditions, including Yazidis, is this genocide?

GJELTEN: Patterson was painfully slow in responding.

ANNE PATTERSON: I don't know the answer to that. I think that's a legal term. I think you'll - there'll be some announcements on that very shortly.

GJELTEN: That was in November. And the pressure to clarify what exactly is happening to Christians and other minorities in the Middle East is certain to intensify in the New Year. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.