ROME — Iraq’s top Catholic official says the United States has a “moral obligation” to put troops on the ground to combat the Islamic extremist group ISIS after leaving his country in “chaos,” but warns the Americans should not act unilaterally.
“The [US] government made a mistake,” said Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, talking about the US invasion of his country in 2003.
“They had no vision really, because where’s democracy in Iraq?” he said. “Where is freedom, and human rights?”
Sako believes a military response to ISIS in Iraq and Syria should come either through an international coalition or a coordinated effort among Iraqi, Kurdish, and US authorities.
“The United States has a moral responsibility, because they destroyed the country,” Sako said. “To leave the country in a critical, chaotic situation, this is not moral.”
Sako believes that airstrikes against ISIS aren’t enough to bring them down.
“ISIS fundamentalists are very well trained. They know the language, the ground, and the mentality,” Sako said.
“Americans are saying it will take five years, 10 years, 30 years, and this language is encouraging ISIS, [making them think] ‘you can stay,’” Sako said. “It’s discouraging Christians or other refugees, thinking they can’t go back home now.”
The Iraqi patriarch made the comments to Crux in an interview during the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome, in which he is taking part.
On Friday, Sako delivered a short homily to synod participants.
“We must feel the experience of Iraqi Christians who in a night have left everything to stay true to their faith,” he said.
Afterward, Pope Francis made a short appeal, calling on the bishops to pray for residents of the Middle East and for the international community to “broaden its horizons beyond immediate interests” and to “use the instruments of international law [and] diplomacy to solve conflicts.”
Sako, who leads a Church with 500,000 faithful, said it’s the innocent who are paying the price in the conflict in Iraq.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, almost 4 million Iraqis have left their homes for other locations within the country in the past 14 months. Thousands have been killed in atrocious ways, such as decapitation, crucifixion, or by being drowned in cages, and many more live as refugees in neighboring countries.
“Who’s behind ISIS and fundamentalism?” Sako asked. “They have money, sophisticated weapons, and more militants. Where are they coming from?”
He suggested that given its satellite capacities, the United States should know where the weapons and fighters are coming from, asking, “Why do they stay silent?”
Sako warned, however, that it would be a mistake for the United States to act on its own, especially if the perception were that the country’s Christian leaders, including the Catholic bishops, had demanded a military offensive.
“It’d be very bad[ly] interpreted by Muslims, you know?” Sako said. “If the Church or the bishops say ‘You have to go there,’ the others will think it’s a Holy War, or that only Christians will be protected, and that’d be a danger also for the Christians.”
Regarding his American counterparts, Sako says US bishops have been helping his country by sending assistance for the displaced families in the form of housing, food, and money. Yet he also thinks they should condemn ISIS more vigorously.
In terms of the Synod of Bishops on the family, the Iraqi prelate has a different focus than many Western bishops. As they debate matters such as Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics or the proper language to use toward gays and lesbians, Sako’s main concern is the impact of war on family life.
He sees three main challenges for families created by the violence engulfing Iraq and Syria:
- A lack of stability, which he also ties to religious persecution.
- Immigration, with thousands of families split up as some fled the country and others didn’t.
- The challenge of remaining faithful to Catholic teaching in a country that’s 94 percent Muslim, and which contains a self-declared “caliphate” that accepts polygamy.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Sako lacks an opinion on the synod’s hot-button issues. On homosexuality, for instance, he warned that any signal the Church is softening its stance would produce a negative reaction in the Middle East — not only among Muslims, but also the Orthodox Churches.
“The Church should keep her teaching, otherwise she’d lose the basis of Catholic doctrine,” he said. “It’d be another religion.”
Yet on the matter of the divorced and the civilly remarried being able to receive Communion, Sako didn’t rule out the possibility of a “case-by-case” solution.
The 2015 Synod of Bishops runs until Oct. 25, with the task of making recommendations to Pope Francis on issues pertaining to family life. In the end, it will be up to the pontiff to make decisions as to what action to take.