Mourners carry the coffin of a 3-year-old girl killed in an attack by Islamic State militants. Signs carried in Arabic read, “enough silence” and “shame.” (AP)

 

The U.S. House of Representative voted 393-0 Monday night that the Islamic State’s assaults on religious minorities in Iraq and Syria constitute genocide, a rare designation advocates hope will drive attention and action to the plight of the persecuted groups.

The vote was expected to pass, but even sponsors said they were surprised it was unanimous. Congress has only faced votes a few times on the complex legal and moral questions of whether heinous crimes qualify as genocide — and division is deep about what, if anything, the label mandates the U.S. government to do. The last time the House did so was in 2004, when it said genocide was being committed in Darfur.

Sponsors of Monday’s measure were overwhelmed by the vote, which is advisory and doesn’t mandate anything. However, it comes a few months after Congress passed a budget measure including a section calling for Secretary of State John Kerry to tell Congress whether the situation with Islamic State militants constitutes genocide — and sets a deadline of this Thursday, March 17 for him to do so. No vote is scheduled at the moment in the Senate.

The State Department Monday declined to comment on whether it would say anything or when.

[What does ‘genocide’ mean in 2016?]

“It is my sincere hope that this trans-partisan resolution will further compel the State Department to join the building international consensus in calling the horrific ISIS violence against Christians, Yezidis and others by its proper name: ‘genocide,’” said U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Nebraska Republican who introduced the measure.

For many years, some Christians — particularly Catholics — have urged a focus on the deteriorating conditions for Christians in the Middle East, but the campaign has escalated significantly with the terrifying rise of Islamic State groups, and has expanded to include more of the many religious minorities the militants terrorize, including Shiite Muslims, Sunni Kurds and others.

Genocide is a specific legal term and scholars have disagreed over whether there has been sufficient evidence to call all religious minorities assaulted by Islamic State victims of “genocide,” rather than of war crimes or crimes against humanity, among other terms. There is also a web of varying lawmaker and advocate proposals about what the United States could do to help Islamic State victims that would be more successful than what the government is doing now. Monday’s House vote will certainly trigger debate, for example, about whether it means the United States needs to significantly open its borders to thousands of the Islamic State’s victims.