The world’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II is unfolding in the Middle East. 

Hundreds of thousands of people in Syria and Iraq have lost their lives, and entire communities have been displaced or wiped out, while neighboring communities and cultures strain to accept millions of people fleeing years of war and terrorism. 

We face the very real prospect of the extinction of many communities indigenous to the region.

This crisis implores all people of good will to unite to build a worldwide effort to save these historic, indigenous minority communities regardless of race, ethnicity or religion.

The Knights of Columbus is committed to this great cause.  We submitted to the State Department on March 9 and subsequently to members of Congress,  a nearly 300-page report that documented the atrocities and laid out the legal analysis supporting the conclusion that genocide is occurring. 

Our recent fact-finding mission to Iraq found evidence of widespread rape, kidnapping, forced conversions, slavery, murder, property confiscation and forced expulsion.  Many of the incidents had not been previously reported.

The State Department’s declaration of genocide on March 17 marked only the second time that such a determination has been made by the U.S. government while the crime is ongoing.

It is our impression that what we know today is likely to be only the tip of the iceberg.  A concerted, sustained effort now needs to be undertaken to document the extent of this tragedy.

ISIS and the victims we interviewed agree on one thing. Many of those targeted were targeted because of their Christian faith. The predecessors of ISIS--the Islamic State in Iraq and Al Qaeda in Iraq—also targeted Christians.

We know that ISIS has killed thousands of Christians in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Mass graves have been reported in Syria, and the desert between Mosul and Erbil was littered with bodies as Christians there fled too quickly to bury neighbors and family members.

Churchmen from the region, including Syriac Catholic Patriarch  Ignatius Joseph III  Younan, and archbishops from Aleppo, Erbil, and Mosul, have all called what is happening to their people genocide.

Genocide has special meaning for Christians in the Middle East. Almost a century ago, Raphael Lemkin formulated the concept he would later call genocide to address the killing of Christians in the region during and after World War I.

Today the stakes are even higher. The number of Christians in Iraq has plummeted from more than 1.5 million to as few as 200,000. In Syria, the Christian community has been reduced by two thirds, from 1.5 million to 500,000.

These people are among the longest-standing ethnic and religious communities, not only in the region, but in the world. 

The United Nations must act to ensure that these ancient and vulnerable indigenous groups do not face extinction.

We cannot accept one standard for human rights in this region and another standard for the rest of the world.

If Christianity disappears in this region, so does the opportunity for pluralism; and the likelihood of majoritarian theocracy, or something worse, is increased.

We have a unique opportunity to change things for the better.  Never before has the world’s attention been so focused on the suffering of these minorities. Never has their plight been so high on the agenda of the world’s governments, the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, and all people of good will. 

The United Nations can play a vital role by protecting the victims and refugees, by ensuring the survival of these ancient indigenous and religious communities, by punishing the perpetrators and by supporting the establishment of internationally agreed-upon standards of justice, equality, rule of law and religious freedom.

Carl Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus. This essay is based on remarks he made to a conference on Christian genocide at the United Nations on April 28.