Iraq Christians
Children of a Christian family, who fled from the violence in Mosul, stay at a school in Erbil REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

On 19 April 2015 Islamic State (Isis) released a video which showed black-clad fighters marching 30 Ethiopian Christians onto a beach and beheading them. A narrator on the video, which appeared to have been shot in Daesh-held territory in Libya, accused the men – many of them refugees and at least three of them from Eritrea, not Ethiopia – of belonging to the "hostile" Ethiopian church before, off camera, they are executed.

The footage shocked the world but was only one episode in a campaign of violence waged by IS against Christians in the territory it controls in Syria, Iraq and Libya. When the terrorist group took Mosul – home to one of the world's oldest Christian communities – in June 2014, tens of thousands fled. Those that remained were forced to convert to Islam or pay a kafir taxes to Daesh – many of those that refused were executed.

Genocide is much more powerful than 'crimes against humanity,' 'war crimes,' 'ethnic cleansing' or these ill-defined terms like 'global atrocity crimes.'
- Gregory Stanton, Genocide Watch

It is not just in IS-held areas where Christians are under threat. Syria was home to over 200,000 Christians prior to the civil war. It has been claimed that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have abducted Christians in the areas it controls near Aleppo, while thousands have fled their homes amidst reports of church burnings and threat by Islamist militants both from IS and other militias.

A Catholic lobbying group – the Knights of Columbus – is pressuring the US government to brand the murder of Christians in the Middle East a genocide. They argue that the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as killing and other acts "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group."

"Extensive and irrefutable evidence supports a finding that the so-called Islamic State's mistreatment of Iraqi and Syrian Christians, as well as Yazidis and other vulnerable minorities, meets this definition," the group wrote in a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry as part of a petition that has been signed by over 60,000 people. It cited kidnappings, ransom and sexual slavery as some of the crimes being committed against Christians.

They also cited recent statements by Pope Francis and Russian Patriarch Kirill that: "whole families, villages and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated. The European parliament, US presidential candidates, more than 200 members of the US Congress and a variety of faith leaders have endorsed the use of the term genocide. So why is the US government dragging its heels?

Kerry was recently pressed on the issue at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, but struggled to explain the prevarication: "It does require a lot of fact-gathering. I mean you have to get the facts from the ground, more than just anecdotal," he said. White House spokesman Josh Earnest, meanwhile said this week that such a designation "requires...a rather precise interpretation of the law." Even Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders has been reluctant to, as some are putting it, use the 'G-word'.

"Look, what's happening to Christians in the Middle East in that area is horrific. What's happening to Muslims is horrific. It is disgusting. You know -- I don't know that we have to put a word on it, but when you have a group, I mean, what can we say about these people? They are killing children because they are going to school. Girls who are going to school, they're putting girls in sexual slavery. This is barbarism and we have to destroy Isis," he said at a Town Hall event hosted by Fox News this week.

Other candidates Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio have both been more forthright and have branded the situation for Middle East Christians as genocide, whilst a recent poll suggested that their stance is supported by some 55 percent of Americans. The US State Department now faces a March 17 deadline, mandated by Congress, to decide whether to designate Islamic State as perpetrators of genocide against religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria.

Some may question the importance of semantics when talking about the horrors being perpetrated in the Middle East, but experts say that the repercussions of the term genocide being adopted are significant, with implications on refugee policy both at home and abroad for victims. The international community would be obligated to take action under the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

"Why does the G-word matter? Genocide is much more powerful than 'crimes against humanity,' 'war crimes,' 'ethnic cleansing' or these ill-defined terms like 'global atrocity crimes.' Those don't even have a definition in the international law," Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, told US media this week.

He said that a 2007 study carried out by himself and three other experts proved a direct correlation between the use of the word genocide to discuss war crimes – in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and Kosovo – and action performed to prevent them. In three of these cases (Rwanda, Kosovo and Bosnia) action was taken once they were classified genocide.

Now activists are hoping that the plight of the fourth, Darfur, which remains a humanitarian disaster zone today, is not a harbinger of what will befall the Middle East's Christians.

The end of Christianity in the Middle East?

In 2011 there were 12 million Christians in the Middle East, spread across several countries including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon but recent reports suggest that as a proportion of the Middle East population their numbers have dropped from 14% in 1910 to just four per cent today.

Christian charity Open Doors cites Islamic extremism in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Nigeria and the Central African Republic as the most common driver of persecutions of Christians, a trend that has only increased with the rise of groups such as Islamic State (IS) and Boko Haram.

The charity estimates that 7,000 Christians have been killed in the past year, almost 3,000 more than in the year earlier - although these figures do not include those killed in Iraq, Syria or North Korea, where it is difficult to get accurate information on deaths, Open Doors said.

Tens of thousands of Christians have been displaced in Iraq and Syria, with as many as 120,000 fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Before the Syrian civil war there were an estimated 1.8 million Christians living in Syria - now that figure is as low as 800,000. In Iraq, 120,000 Christians have fled Daesh areas including Mosul, which IS declared was "free of Christians" in July 2014.

Meanwhile the Palestinian Christian community has been dwindling in Gaza and is under significant strain in the West Bank, where renewed violence with Israel has seen cities such as Bethlehem increasingly under military lock-down. The plight of Palestinian Christians was raised by Pope Francis during his first visit to the Holy land in 2014. Christian churches have also been targeted by radical right wing Israeli groups.