Catholic leaders and key human rights activists said they were encouraged by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement Tuesday that ISIS is one of the world's biggest threats to religious freedom and is responsible for genocide, but added the administration must take action in the next few months to save minority religious groups in Iraq.
The State Department released a much-anticipated annual report on religious freedom Tuesday. In the preface to the report, Tillerson made his clearest statement to date that ISIS's mass slaughter of Yazidis, Christians and other religious minorities constitutes a genocide and vowed that the Trump administration will make the protection of these groups a "priority."
"ISIS has and continues to target members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement, and death," Tillerson stated in the preface. "ISIS is clearly responsible for genocide against Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims in areas it controlled."
"ISIS is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups, and in some cases against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities," he continued. "The protection of these groups—and others who are targets of violent extremism—remains a human rights priority for the Trump Administration."
Tillerson followed up with a statement he said was aimed at removing "any ambiguity from previous statements or reports by the State Department."
"We will continue working with our regional partners to protect religious minority communities from terrorist attacks and to preserve their cultural heritage," he said.
The religious freedom report assesses the degree of religious freedom in 199 foreign countries and chronicles what the United States is doing to help protect those rights.
Human rights activists and dozens of members of Congress have spent months pressing the Trump administration to firmly declare the ISIS mass murders of ethnic minorities in the region genocide and quickly change the way the U.S. aid is distributed on the ground in Iraq in an effort to save these religious communities from the edge of extinction.
Andrew Walther, vice president of communications for the Knights of Columbus, one of the largest Catholic fraternal organizations in the world, praised Tillerson for his statement and said the survival of these religious minorities now depends on how swiftly the U.S. government can act over the next several months.
"It's very important that the genocide committed by ISIS continue to be recognized as a serious threat to religious freedom and it continues to be recognized as a genocide, which the secretary clearly has done," Walther said. "The next few months are critical not only to the final defeat of ISIS militarily but also ensuring that their ideology is not successful in removing these minority religious groups."
"If they are defeated militarily but their agenda—their stated purpose [of wiping out other religions]—continues unabated, then even in defeat they would have achieved the ideological win, and a win that will have consequences for generations for pluralism and the makeup of that region that will have worldwide consequences."
The Knights of Columbus have spent years working with the local Catholic archdioceses in Iraq to try to ensure U.S. aid reaches these communities. Christian Iraqis don't go to refugee camps where U.S. and U.N. aid is distributed out of fear they will be targeted for persecution.
Congress, in several recent appropriations bills, has specifically designated millions of dollars of funds to try to save the groups from extinction, but the State Department has yet to act on those directives.
"There are ways in which these communities have been left out [of U.S. and international efforts to help ISIS victims]," Walther said. "There is a very clear willingness among the political appointees of this administration. It's just important that it gets executed in a very timely manner."
"Time is not on our side here," he added.
Nina Shea, an international human rights lawyer who directs the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, and other activists recently criticized the State Department, saying it spent months this year removing or preventing the word genocide from being used in official documents or speeches in relation to ISIS persecution of Christians, Yazidis, and other groups in Iraq.
Shea, a former commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has applauded statements Tillerson and others at State have made to try to respond to the criticism and clarify its position on the genocide issue.
She lauded Tillerson on Tuesday for going further than he has before in stating that ISIS is responsible for genocide in Iraq.
"The secretary's comments are strong and wide-ranging," she said. "He not only clearly designated ISIS's genocide but spoke to the immediate crisis of defending the targeted religious minorities and also of the need to act to preserve their culture in the aftermath."
"The last is an urgent issue as their numbers dwindle and their spirits flag from marginalization, not only by their own government but by the U.N., from its aid programs," she added.