The Catholic News Agency (CNA) Matt Hadro
The stories were graphic, brutal and raw.
One account told of a couple whose children had been captured by Islamic State militants. When they answered their door one day, they found a plastic bag on their doorstep. It contained the body parts of their daughters and a video of them being raped and tortured.
Another recalled a Christian woman from Mosul who answered the door to find ISIS foreign fighters, demanding that she leave or pay a jizya tax.
She asked for a few seconds, her daughter being in the shower, but the fighters refused to give her the time. They put a torch to the house, burning and eventually killing her daughter.
The girl died in her mother’s arms, but her last words were “Forgive them.”
These were the stories that emerged from a conference on Christian persecution that took place in New York City on Thursday.
Several of the stories were recounted by Jacqueline Isaac, a human rights attorney and vice president of the advocacy group Roads of Success.
Her mother, president of the group, had testified before British Parliament the previous week after having returned from Homs, Syria. Isaac relayed many of her stories, noting both the savage and vicious acts being committed, and the stories of heroism and forgiveness.
“See, in the midst of darkness, there is light, and it is that light that has us sitting here today, because when there is light, there is hope,” she said.
Isaac was one of the speakers at the #WeAreN2016 international congress on religious freedom, which is taking place from April 28-30 in New York City. It is the second annual conference held to bring attention and awareness to the plight of Christians and other persecuted religious minorities, particularly in the Middle East. The “N” stands for the Arabic letter “nun,” spray-painted mockingly onto the houses of Christians in Mosul, Iraq by the Islamic State referring to them as “Nazarenes.”
On Thursday morning, the congress was held at the United Nations headquarters and sponsored by the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the U.N. It featured testimonies on the persecution of Christians from victims of ISIS, missionaries in Syria, and other religious and civic leaders.
Speakers shared horrific descriptions of ISIS atrocities.
Fighting back tears, 15 year-old Samia Sleman told about her six months as an ISIS captive. Speaking through a translator, the Yazidi teenager said that her family was captured in August of 2014. Her father, uncle, and grandfather are all still in ISIS captivity.
Their captors separated the men and the women and took their possessions. For the thousands of women in captivity, they raped the girls as young as seven years old and forced them to convert to Islam. Some of the older women were deemed unworthy to keep as sex slaves and killed.
“Why are these innocent kids and these innocent people suffering this much in that region?” Sleman asked.
“Why don’t we see any action being taken? Even though it’s been over a year and a half now, we’ve seen horrible things happen to use minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians, in that region, and we don’t see the international community taking concrete actions against the Islamic State.”
Recent recognition that a genocide is taking place in the Middle East – by the European Union Parliament, the U.S. State Department, and the British House of Commons – has given hope to the victims, both Isaac and Sleman said.
But more needs to be done.
The next step is for the United Nations Security Council to declare genocide and refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. A petition by the group CitizenGO asking the U.N. to declare genocide and take action to protect the religious freedom of minorities has garnered over 170,000 signatures, and was delivered to U.N. headquarters Friday morning.
The word “genocide” carries deep significance, Isaac insisted. When she testified before the UK Parliament, she brought along a 16 year-old girl who had witnessed inexpressibly barbaric atrocities. The girl had seen her own father murdered before her own eyes, and had witnessed the repeated rape of a nine year-old girl until she died, as well as a mother fed the ground-up remains of her own child by ISIS.
“Though the legal arguments were very important in that parliamentarian decision in the House of Commons,” Isaac said, “it is those stories that moved the House of Commons [to declare genocide].”
And when the body declared that genocide was taking place in Iraq and Syria, the girl cried “oh God, oh God, thank you God, You heard our cries,” saying it was “justice for our people” and their “honor and dignity returned,” Isaac said.
Afterward, she called a mother in Syria whose child had been murdered. “My son’s innocent bloodshed has not been ignored,” the mother responded to the House of Commons move.
“The first step, the first victory, is that healing process,” Isaac said, the proof that “the survivors know” others are supporting them.