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Pope Francis asks United Nations to protect Iraqi Christians

Pope Francis, seen here during a visit to Seoul, South Korea, recently urged the United Nations to do more to help Iraqi Christians.
Pope Francis, seen here during a visit to Seoul, South Korea, recently urged the United Nations to do more to help Iraqi Christians.
Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

On Friday, August 15, Hannah Roberts of The Daily Mail reported that Pope Francis wrote a letter to the United Nations urging its members to send troops into Iraq to help protect Christians who have been persecuted by the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS). Don Pittman of The Gospel Herald added that the Pope sent out a tweet the day before asking "the international community to protect all those suffering violence in Iraq." These recent actions by the Pope suggest that he considers using military forces to intervene on behalf of his fellow believers to be a form of just war as defined by the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

According to Roberts, "Pope Francis has backed international military intervention to protect Christians driven from their homes by IS in Iraq. The pope, who is visiting Korea this week, has written to the United Nations in an 'urgent appeal to the international community to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now underway'.

"... In a letter addressed to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, he wrote: 'The violent attacks that are sweeping across Northern Iraq cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes. ... The tragic experiences of the 20th Century, and the most basic understanding of human dignity, compels the international community, particularly through the norms and mechanisms of international law, to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities.'"

Pittman said that according to the Just War Doctrine developed by St. Augustine of Hippo circa 400 A.D., just war is allowed when "genocide, whether of a people, nation or ethnic minorities;" is taking place. He added that recent reports of atrocities being committed by IS make it easy to build a case that the violence has reached levels where the doctrine would apply.

According to Pittman, "The Vatican's position is no doubt being made stronger as news of the ethnic cleansing of minorities, Christians included, comes pouring in from Iraq. Christian leaders in Iraq have made it abundantly clear that the persecution is reaching genocidal levels, with urgent help needed to protect Christians, Yezidis, and the Kurdish minorities in the north of the country, where tens of thousands have been forced to flee for their lives.

"... The Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue [also] called for Muslim leaders to denounce the brutality of Islamic State militants, saying there was no possible justification for their 'unspeakable crimes'. The council said these terrorist were guilty of the 'heinous practice of decapitation, crucifixion and stringing up bodies in public places', pointing out that 'no reason, certainly not religion, could justify such barbarism'."

On Friday, August 15, Peter Smith of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that several church officials and Catholic theologians agree with the Pope that a military response is justified. This may come as a shock to some people, considering that the Vatican strongly opposed other acts of warfare in the Middle East.

According to Smith, "In a rare departure from the Vatican’s fierce criticism of the U.S. military invasions of Iraq in 1991 and 2003 and its aborted threat of action in Syria last year, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, Vatican envoy to the United Nations, said last weekend that the U.S. airstrikes that have slowed the ISIS advance may be necessary. He cited the recently developed United Nations doctrine of the 'responsibility to protect,' in which international forces can override local sovereignty to prevent mass slaughter.

"Archbishop Tomasi told Vatican Radio that Iraq is a case that can justify not only economic sanctions but 'all the force that is necessary to stop this evil and this tragedy.' He said the international community may come to regret inaction in Iraq as much as it laments its paralysis during the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

"His words shouldn’t be a surprise, said Anna Floerke Scheid, professor of theology at Duquesne University and a specialist in Catholic social ethics. Ancient Catholic doctrine authorizes a 'just war' as a last resort.

"'To suggest that military action might be a possible ethical response to the murder of civilians in a war situation or in any kind of conflict is very much in keeping with the just-war tradition,' she said. 'It’s not really a switch.'"

Smith added that it would be easier for the Vatican to support limited air strikes similar to the ones the U.S. has already used to help protect Yezidi refugees in Iraq than full-scale warfare. A "boots on the ground" situation might not fulfill the requirements of the Just War Doctrine.

According to Smith, "The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, said it’s relatively easy to justify isolated U.S. attacks on convoys of ISIS fighters. 'Now, if they started using air power to bomb Mosul and take it back, you'd see a little more nervousness on the part of the Vatican,” he said, because such urban warfare would inevitably involve heavy civilian casualties.'"

At least from a theological perspective, limited engagement with IS to protect Christians and others who are being persecuted would probably be acceptable to Pope Francis and other church leaders. It will be interesting to see if the Pope's calls to action result in the United Nations coming up with a strategy that the Vatican could endorse, or if proposals by politicians in Great Britain and France lead to plans that exceed what they consider to be just warfare. Both countries are planning to send weapons to Kurds and ethnic Yezidis in Iraq to help them defend themselves against IS forces. While this makes sense from a strategic perspective, it could result in fighting on a scale that the Vatican may not be willing to support.

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