Vatican diplomacy focuses on humanitarian intervention in Iraq

Persons displaced by the Islamic State who have sought refuge in Ankawa, Erbil, Iraq. Credit:

The persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State has pushed Vatican diplomacy to add strong calls for international humanitarian intervention to its prayers for the situation.

The past week has seen the appointment of a papal enjoy to Iraq, a strongly worded open letter from the Vatican's dicastery for interrreligious dialogue, and an urgent appeal from Pope Francis himself to the head of the United Nations.

The Pope's decision to send an envoy to Iraq, in addition to its nuncio, shows the Holy See's desire to play a key diplomatic role in the region.

Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and a former apostolic nuncio to Iraq, is the man appointed Pope Francis' personal envoy to the nation.

The two met together Aug. 9, and it is not by chance that Pope Francis' letter to Ban Ki-moon, general secretary of the UN, delivered today, is dated Aug. 9.

The letter was aimed at giving Cardinal Filoni's mission an international acknowledgement, so that the Cardinal will be now be able to carry forward his mission under the umbrella of an official papal document to the UN; under those auspices he will be able to network and coordinate efforts with  UN humanitarian agencies.

The delivery of the Pope’s letter to Ban followed the publication of a declaration issued by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which asked religious leaders – Muslims in particular –  to take a strong stand against acts that offend God as well as humanity, and to nurture a culture of peace.

“The need for the declaration is originated in the extreme gravity of the situation that religious and ethnic communities are living in in Iraq, and particularly the Christians and Yazidis. We cannot pretend not to know, we cannot remain silent,” Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the same pontifical council, in an Aug. 13 interview with CNA.

Cardinal Tauran stressed that the pontifical council thanked the religious leaders who “have raised their voice to condemn the horrible crimes perpetrated by jihadists of the so-called ‘Islamic State,'” while it asked “the leaders who have not spoken clearly” to do so.

“If they don’t do, our credibility as religious leaders would be lost,” since religious leaders should call  authorities “not only to condemn actions, but also to do everything possible to save human lives and re-establish justice and the rule of law.”

Cardinal Tauran also underscored that “the Holy See has a grave responsibility” because “it has a moral authority.”

He stressed also the “irreplaceable role of the local Churches,” particularly in the Middle East, for overcoming the challenge of the Islamic State.

The Holy See's insistence on humanitarian intervention in Iraq and Syria is noted in particular by the comments made today by Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, its permanent observer to the UN, to Vatican Radio regarding the Pope's letter to Ban.

Archbishop Tomasi told Vatican Radio that “what seems to be particularly important in the letter of the Holy Father to Ban Ki-moon is the expressions that he uses: the tragic situation ‘compels’ the international community. There is a moral imperative, so to (speak), a necessity to act.”

The archbishop added that the UN charter notes that at times, “dialogue, negotiations, fail and large numbers of people find themselves at risk: at risk of genocide, at risk of having their fundamental, their basic human rights violated. In this case, when every other means has been attempted, article 42 of the Charter of the United Nations becomes possible justification for not only imposing sanctions of economic nature on the state or the group or the region that violates the basic human rights of people, but also to use force. All the force that is necessary to stop this evil and this tragedy.”

“We should not have a short memory,” he added.

“A few years ago, I remember we were faced with a similar situation as we are faced now in northern Iraq when Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda were killing each other. There were meetings, political declarations, but very little action.”

“And then, every year when we commemorate the almost 1 million people killed in that genocide, we make a kind of ‘mea culpa’ saying we have not done anything effective to prevent the killing of those innocent people.”

“God forbid that this may also be the same situation today in northern Iraq.”


In our time

Archbishop José H. Gomez

As I write, I’ve just read the sad news that 90 Christians have been kidnapped from two villages in Syria. Of course we were all shocked earlier this month by the news that 21 Coptic Christians were executed in Syria — killed, as Pope Francis said, “for the mere fact of being Christians.” 

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March 1, 2015

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