In an unusually blunt endorsement of military action, the Vatican’s top diplomat at the United Nations in Geneva has called for a coordinated international force to stop the “so-called Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq from further assaults on Christians and other minority groups.
“We have to stop this kind of genocide,” said Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s representative in Geneva. “Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t so something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen.”
Tomasi said that any anti-ISIS coalition has to include the Muslim states of the Middle East, and can’t simply be a “Western approach.” He also said it should unfold under the aegis of the United Nations.
The call for force is striking, given that the Vatican traditionally has opposed military interventions in the Middle East, including the two US-led Gulf Wars. It builds, however, on comments from Pope Francis that the use of force is “legitimate … to stop an unjust aggressor.”
Tomasi issued the call in an interview with Crux on the same day he presented a statement entitled “Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities, particularly in the Middle East,” coauthored with the Russian Federation and Lebanon, to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
The statement has drawn almost 70 nations as signatories, including the United States.
Tomasi told Crux that in the first instance, he hopes the statement will galvanize nations around the world to provide humanitarian aid to Christians and other groups suffering at the hands of ISIS, “so they can survive and stand up for their own rights.”
Beyond that, Tomasi said, the crisis requires “more coordinated protection, including the use of force to stop the hands of an aggressor.”
“It will be up the United Nations and its member states, especially the Security Council, to determine the exact form of intervention necessary,” he said, “but some responsibility [to act] is clear.”
Tomasi applauded an initiative by France to call a special meeting of the Security Council later this month to discuss the situation facing Christians in the Middle East.
Thousands of Christians are believed to have been killed in various parts of the Middle East, principally Iraq and Syria, since the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the declaration of an ISIS-led “caliphate.” Hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minority groups have been driven into exile.
To be effective, Tomasi said, an anti-ISIS coalition must include “the countries most directly involved in the Middle East,” meaning the Islamic states of the region.
“What’s needed is a coordinated and well-thought-out coalition to do everything possible to achieve a political settlement without violence,” Tomasi said, “but if that’s not possible, then the use of force will be necessary.”
Tomasi called such international military action in defense of beleaguered minorities “a doctrine that’s been developed both in the United Nations and in the social teaching of the Catholic Church.”
The March 13 joint statement on Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, Tomasi said, was a “first” in the United Nations, in that it’s the first time in the Human Rights Council that the plight of Christians has been specifically addressed.
He said the statement originated with Russia, which traditionally sees itself as a protector of Orthodox Christians in the Middle East. Lebanon was invited to participate, he said, because it’s a Middle Eastern country where Christians have long flourished alongside their Muslim neighbors.
Beyond geopolitics, Tomasi also offered some thoughts on what individual Christians around the world can do to support their fellow believers in the Middle East.
“First of all, it’s important to pray and to practice a spiritual communion with these people,” he said.
“Second, one can raise awareness of the political situation that leaves these Christians as structural victims in their own countries,” he said. Third, he said, individuals can help shape a climate of public opinion that sees “both humanitarian and effective protection of the rights of these people” as a priority.
Tomasi stressed that from the Vatican’s point of view, what’s most important is not that these victims are Christian, but that they’re human beings whose lives and dignity are in jeopardy.
“We are not fighting for Christians simply because they’re Christians,” he said. “We start from the foundation that they are human beings with equal rights.”
“Christians, Yazidis, Shi’ites, Sunis, Alawites, all are human beings whose rights deserve to be protected,” he said. “Christians are a special target at this moment, but we want to help them without excluding anyone.”
“There’s a common human dignity we all share,” he said, “and it should be protected at all costs.”