By MATTHEW LEE, AP Diplomatic Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration denounced the Islamic State group on Tuesday for carrying out “genocide” against Christians and other religious minorities in areas under its control.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the group is “clearly responsible for genocide” against Christians and Yazidis in Iraq and Shiite Muslims in Syria and elsewhere. Standing in front of a portrait of President George Washington, Tillerson’s comments were made as the State Department released its annual report on international religious freedom.
Later Tuesday, President Donald Trump would invoke Washington’s legacy to defend the aims of those who joined the fatal Charlottesville, Virginia, rally organized by white nationalists over the weekend.
That rally was ostensibly held to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“George Washington was a slave owner,” Trump reminded reporters Tuesday. “Are we gonna take down statues of George Washington? You’re changing history, you’re changing culture.”
Earlier Tuesday, Tillerson said he was making the pronouncement to “remove any ambiguity” about previous genocide assertions made by his predecessor, John Kerry. In March 2016, Kerry determined that genocide was occurring in Islamic State-held areas but was criticized by lawmakers and religious groups for not declaring genocide was taking place earlier. Neither administration’s genocide determination carries with it any legal obligation for the U.S. or others.
“ISIS has and continues to target members of multiple religions and ethnicities for rape, kidnapping, enslavement and death,” Tillerson told reporters in presenting the report.
“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,” Tillerson said. “The protection of these groups — and others who are targets of violent extremism — remains a human-rights priority for the Trump administration.”
The religious-freedom report, which is mandated by Congress, covers 2016 and does not address the Trump administration’s decision to temporarily halt the admission of all refugees, many of whom are fleeing religious persecution. The administration has appealed challenges to the suspension of those admissions to the Supreme Court.
An appendix to the report covering refugees said admissions are “a vital tool” in addressing religious persecution and other human rights abuses. It said more than 70 percent of the nearly 85,000 refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2016 came from five nations — Congo, Syria, Myanmar, Iraq and Somalia — where the report itself said that freedom to worship is under threat. Syria and Somalia are among the six mainly Muslim nations that are also included in the administration’s visa ban that is also before the Supreme Court.
Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said the administration is concentrating on trying to alleviate repressive conditions to reduce the need for people to flee their homes. He noted that many who have fled would prefer to return to their homes than move abroad. And, he noted that in Iraq and Syria specifically, it was preferable not to disturb millennia-old religious minorities.
“We don’t want to uproot communities that have been there for thousands of years and take them elsewhere,” he said.
In addition to the Islamic State, Tillerson and the report called out Bahrain, China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Turkey for persecuting, stigmatizing or otherwise restricting the rights of religious minorities.
“Religious persecution and intolerance remains far too prevalent,” Tillerson said, noting that some 80 percent of the world’s population live “with persecution or limits on their ability to worship.”
“We cannot ignore these conditions,” he said.