Iraqi Christians attend a Mass at a church in Baghdad. Middle East Christians face repeated violence by militants of the Islamic State group. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)
Martin O'Malley's all-but-hopeless presidential campaign became relevant for a moment during last weekend's Democratic debate when the former Maryland governor twice used the word "genocide" to describe the plight of Christians in the Middle East.
In an answer to a question about Syrian refugees, O'Malley said that Chaldean Christians in Syria had told him that "when ISIS moves into their town, they actually paint a red cross across the door and mark their homes for demolition, and that tells the family you'd better get out now. That [is the] sort of genocide and brutality that the victims are suffering."
We have detailed that suffering before. Christians in Islamic State-controlled Iraq and Syria are being tortured, raped, kidnapped for ransom, enslaved, beheaded and crucified. So many Christians have fled that some experts warn that Christianity could virtually disappear in the place of its birth within a generation or two.
There is a debate over whether the Islamic State's targeting of Christians constitutes genocide. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide defines genocidal crimes as those "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."
The State Department is preparing to issue a report labeling the Islamic State's assault on Iraq and Syria's Yazidi population a genocide. But there are indications that the Obama administration believes Islamic State's attacks on Christians don't rise to the same level.
The main argument against a designation of genocide is that while the Islamic State wishes to eradicate or enslave the Yazidis, it offers Christians other options. Under Islamic law, Christians (and Jews) are considered people of the book. Christians are given the option of converting to Islam or living under the caliphate as dhimmis, meaning they must accept second-class status and pay a special tax, called the jizya.
But in reality most Christians living in Islamic State-controlled territory are given only two choices: convert to Islam or die.
Concerns over the State Department's genocide designation prompted a bipartisan group of lawmakers in September to introduce a resolution "expressing the sense of Congress" that the atrocities against Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities constitute genocide. The resolution now has 165 co-sponsors.
Experts disagree over whether a designation of genocide would legally oblige the U.S. to intervene to stop the slaughter of innocents. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the Clinton administration rejected the designation, fearing that it would commit the U.S. to "actually 'do something,'" in the words of an infamous administration memo.
As George W. Bush's secretary of state, Colin Powell used the term to describe the mass killings in Sudan's Darfur region only after his aides determined that using the word wouldn't carry any legal obligation to act.
A genocide designation might make it easier for Christians and other religious minorities to be granted safe haven in the United States. It would also raise American Christians' awareness about the plight of religious minorities in the region, and it could bring to bear moral pressure on governments to take more direct action to stop the bloodshed.
O'Malley's comments at last weekend's debate quickly became lost in the post-debate chatter over campaign data breaches and bathroom breaks. But by using the G-word to describe the threat that Christians and other religions minorities in Syria and Iraq are facing, O'Malley set an example that the other presidential candidates should follow.