ROME — People may still be trying to parse Pope Francis’ ambivalent language about U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in a recent press conference, but Iraq’s Vatican ambassador says the pope has put his weight behind military action where it really counted.
Without Francis, says Al-Sadr Habeeb Mohammed Hadi Ali, it’s possible nobody would have stepped up at all.
“If it wasn’t for the pope’s insistent call to the international community, no one would have moved into stopping ISIS,” said Al-Sadr, who’s been his country’s envoy to the pope since 2010.
He spoke in an exclusive interview with Crux.
On his way home from South Korea in mid-August, Francis delivered a mixed verdict on the current U.S. offensive, saying it’s “legitimate” to stop an unjust aggressor, but warning this doesn’t necessarily mean dropping bombs and expressing a preference for U.N. authorization.
Al-Sadr, however, argued that the big picture is Francis’ “repeated call to the international community to intervene and to support the country in the midst of the present plight.”
“This group is an international danger, and the world will suffer if they are not stopped,” he said. “It’s good that the pope is speaking up.”
The ambassador said both the Iraqi government and the country’s religious leaders appreciate the firmness of Pope Francis, as well as his spiritual support.
In the wake of recent media reports that Pope Francis himself might be an ISIS target, al-Sadr didn’t play down those concerns.
“I have no doubt that a terrorist organization as ISIS, with such a criminal record of destruction, murdering, ethnic ‘purification,’ that considers human trafficking as a norm, can be a threat to His Holiness,” he said.
“They believe all Christians are infidels,” he said. “Their destruction and violation of holy and sacred shrines in Iraq confirms their [capacity for] atrocity.”
In terms of the estimated 100,000 Iraqi Christians driven from their homes by ISIS forces, al-Sadr said Iraqi authorities are doing their best, with the help of the Catholic Church, the United Nations, and various humanitarian groups, to guarantee that every refugee finds basic shelter.
Authorities are also distributing food, he said, and providing financial assistance of a little under $800 to each refugee family. He acknowledged, however, these are Band-Aids rather than long-term solutions.
“The only radical and real solution is to guarantee that all the 1.25 million refugees in Iraq are able to return home,” he said.
According to Al-Sadr, the government’s aspiration is to guarantee that Christians, as well as other minorities that make up the country’s complex society, are able to stay.
The ambassador recalled that the first Catholic church was built in Iraq at the same time that the Roman Coliseum, where early Christian were martyred, was under construction. Ironically, Iraq’s first Christians arrived as refugees escaping Roman persecution.
He said Iraq needs the help of the West to destroy the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate, especially Western intelligence agencies.
“We can afford the weaponry and we have the soldiers,” he said, “but we need Obama, Cameron and Hollande to make sure that Islamic terrorists being educated in Iraq by ISIS don’t return to their countries,” referring to the US president and the prime ministers of England and France.
Al-Sadr said he has faced personal threats, but vowed he won’t back down in the effort to build a different kind of country in Iraq.
“I have received some threats, but this is my mission,” he said.
“I believe in the duty of contributing to stopping ISIS, not only for my country’s safety, but for the world’s,” he said. “I’m ready to sacrifice my life to see this through.”
ISIS has become synonymous with brutality, in part for its grisly executions of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Hours after the Sotloff killing, Pope Francis addressed the Christians of Iraq during his Wednesday general audience.
“The Church is a mother, and as every mother, she protects those that are being persecuted,” he said. “You’re in the Church’s heart; the Church is suffering with you, you are its strength and testimony of salvation, forgiveness, and love.”