Stopping an unjust aggressor. With weapons if necessary. A pope thought to be pacifist appeals for the military protection of populations attacked by the Islamic caliphate
ROME – He puts prayer in first place. But he doesn't dismiss the arts of diplomacy. And now he is not hesitating to call upon armies.
The geopolitics of Pope Francis operates on these three levels, of which the third is the most surprising. The complete opposite of the absolute pacifism that seemed to characterize the beginning of his pontificate.
In effect, last year the day of prayer and fasting against a military intervention by the West in Syria, with a rosary recited in St. Peter's Square, was the act with which Francis seemed to proclaim to the world how he, the pope, intended for move from that moment on in theaters of war. With empty hands, disarmed, lifted to heaven.
And for a moment the world seemed to obey him, with almost all governments against the attack, including public opinion in the United States and France, the only two states tempted to intervene, and including the belligerents of Syria, where the war however did not stop but became even more savage.
Months later, Francis once again resorted to prayer for peace between Israel and the Arabs. He got the two enemy presidents, Peres and Abu Mazen, to invoke God beside him at the Vatican. This time with less illusory effects and a rapid plunge into a new war.
With growing skepticism, the corridors of power charged Francis with preferring the escape of prayer to the tough confrontation with reality.
But that's not the case, because from the beginning Francis has accompanied prayer with the patience and shrewdness of Realpolitik.
After firing the inept cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, he placed at the head of the secretariat of state a diplomat of the highest caliber, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, whose advice he diligently treasures.
Pope Francis has always been careful not to align himself publicly against any adversaries on the field, especially if they are Muslims, even at the cost of remaining silent over his solidarity with Christian victims persecuted for their faith, from the Pakistani Asia Bibi to the Sudanese Meriam to the Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram.
Francis' diplomacy even takes slaps in silence, in the hope of future success. At the pope's arrival in South Korea last August 14, North Korea mocked it by firing off three test missiles and canceling the attendance of its own delegation.
As for China, the Vatican actively boasts that for the first time Beijing has allowed a pope to fly over its territory, with an exchange of courtesy messages.
But in a passive sense there is much more. The authorities of Beijing allowed only a very few Catholics to go to Korea to greet Francis. They called back to the country the Chinese priests who were living there. But above all they have given no sign of slackening the repression of Catholicism in China, where the highest ranking figure of the hierarchy in communion with Rome, Shanghai bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, has been under house arrest from the day of his appointment, and many other bishops and priests are in prison or have disappeared.
The Vatican authorities have required the combative cardinal of Hong Kong, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, to remain silent so that “diplomacy can work.” Since Francis became pope, the commission for China created by Benedict XVI in 2007, with Zen at the forefront, has not been convened. He regularly sends the pope informative letters with the discouraging words: "I hope that you read this.”
There is, however, a level of tolerance beyond which Pope Francis himself admits the use of force. And this is what is happening with the newly created Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
When Mosul fell on June 8, the Vatican authorities reacted with extreme caution. But after the plain of Nineveh also fell into the hands of the caliphate in early August, to the disaster of Christians and other religious minorities, with thousands killed out of pure hatred for another faith, the requests for help came so strongly from those places that an official representative of Vatican diplomacy, permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva Silvano Tomasi, broke the silence and repeatedly called for an intervention of the international community “to disarm the aggressor.”
The last precedent of this kind goes back to 1992, when John Paul II called for an armed “humanitarian intervention” to stop the massacre in the former Yugoslavia. In 2005 the general assembly of the UN approved the principle of the “responsibility to protect” with weapons the populations subjected to mass killings, and in 2008 Benedict XVI upheld the value of this principle in a speech to this same assembly, at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
Pope Francis did not take immediate personal action on this terrain.
First he allowed the Iraqi bishops to speak out, unanimous in calling for a massive military intervention.
In the Vatican he allowed the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, headed by Cardinal Jean-Louis Touran, to publish a tremendous and detailed act of accusation against the Islamic caliphate, demanding equal clarity of judgment from the Muslim world.
As his “alter ego” he sent to Iraq Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a former nuncio in that tormented country.
And finally he himself, Francis, in an August 13 letter to the secretary general of the UN Ban Ki-Moon, asked the international community to “do everything possible to stop and prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities.”
On his return from Korea, he even said that he was ready to go to Iraq, at the height of this “third world war” that he sees being fought here and there “to pieces” and with “frightening levels of cruelty,” because “stopping the unjust aggressor” is not only a right but a duty.
In short: an army for making peace. But so far the response of governments and the UN to this papal appeal has been feeble, if not absent.
This commentary was published in "L'Espresso" no. 34 of 2014, on newsstands as of August 22, on the opinion page entitled "Settimo cielo" entrusted to Sandro Magister.
Here is the index of all the previous commentaries:
The August 13 letter from Pope Francis to the secretary general of the UN, Ban Ki-Moon:
And the complete transcription of his statements on August 18, after coming back from Korea:
The article in "La Civiltà Cattolica" of March 1, 2014 on the positions of international law and of the Catholic Church concerning military operations on behalf of peoples in peril:
The detailed denunciation of the horrors of the Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria published on August 12 by the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, in the original French text and in the Italian, English, Spanish, and Portuguese versions:
The roots of violence in Islam and the cultural revolution to which the Muslim world is called according to Benedict XVI:
In addition to the Christians and Yazidi, it must be noted that the sword of the caliphate is also aimed against Muslims who do not obey its ideology. On August 13, a statement from the Union of Islamic Communities and Organizations in Italy recalled that "sixteen Sunni Muslim ulemas, who belong to Sufi confraternities of Mosul, have been killed for defending Christians. These include the imam of the city's grand mosque, Muhammad al-Mansuri, and that of the mosque of the prophet Jonah, Abdel-Salam Muhamma".
The appeal of Chaldean patriarch Louis Sako and other Iraqi bishops for the sending of "a contingent of the United States and the European Union," issued August 14 on the occasion of the visit to Erbil by the pope's envoy, Cardinal Fernando Filoni:
The joint statement released on August 18 by Cardinal Filoni and Patriarch Sako:
In a previous interview with "L'Osservatore Romano" Cardinal Filoni had recalled how the current persecution of Christians in northern Iraq is the third to have taken place over the last century:
"With the fall of the Ottoman empire and the constitution of Turkey as a state, thousands of Christians – Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenian, Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic – were killed or expelled. The survivors underwent deportation, were forced to flee, and many died of hunger and privation. Between 1915 and 1918, five bishops underwent martyrdom, three died in exile; of sixteen Catholic dioceses three remained; of the 250 priests half were killed together with numerous religious sisters. The apostolic delegate Giacomo Emilio Sontag was killed in Urmia. Then, during the 1960's, thousands of Christians were expelled during the revolts in Kurdistan, finding refuge in Mosul, on the plain of Nineveh, or in Baghdad. Now we are at the third great persecution."
The dramatic interview in "Avvenire" of August 12 with the Chaldean bishop of Mosul, Emil Nona:
In it, he said among other things :
"In the Quran there are verses that say to kill Christians, all other infidels. The word 'infidel' is a very strong word in Islam: the infidel, for Islam, has no dignity, has no rights. One can do anything to an infidel: kill him, make him a slave. Everything that the infidel possesses, according to Islam, is the Muslim's by right. This is not a new ideology, it is an ideology based on the Quran itself. These persons represent the true vision of Islam.
[. . .] These people do not believe in dialogue: those who do not agree with their thinking, they kill them."
"Western politicians do not understand what Islam means, they think it is a danger only for our countries. That is not true: it is a danger for everyone, for you Westerners even more than for us. A time will come when you will have to repent for these policies. The frontier for these groups is the whole world: their objective is to convert with the sword or to kill everyone else. [. . .] They can be stopped with war or by unearthing the funds that are financing these groups. International politics must be completely rethought."
Emil Nona's predecessor in Mosul, Bishop Farj Rahho, was killed by Muslim terrorists in 2008.
The astonishing statements to "Corriere della Sera" of August 15 by the secretary general of the Italian episcopal conference, Nunzio Galantino, in strident dissonance with the positions of the Iraqi bishops, the Vatican authorities, and Pope Francis himself:
"There are those who forget the lessons of history and are pushing for a new war against the so-called caliphate of ISIS: but democracy is not exported with weapons, and we must see if this concept of ours coincides with the local aspirations. [. . .] There is a kind of fundamentalism, unfortunately, also here in the West that would like to take the opportunity to destroy all dialogue with the Muslim world, almost as if coexistence were impossible, even dreading that Europe has already been conquered.”
The complete text of Galantino's interview:
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.
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For more news and commentary, see the blog that Sandro Magister maintains, available only in Italian: