ROME – Just as Turkish planes and tanks hammered the Kurdish population in Syria, with other minority groups caught in the crossfire and fearing for their lives, Pope Francis called the international community not to forget the plight of Christian and Yazidi communities both in Syria and in Iraq.
“The international community cannot remain as a quiet and inert spectator before your drama,” the pope said in an audience at the Vatican with representatives of the Yazidi community from Germany.
“I therefore encourage institutions and people of good will belonging to other communities to contribute to the reconstruction of your homes and your places of worship.”
Germany welcomed more than 60,000 members of the Yazidi community, with some estimates pointing to double that number, making it the largest Yazidi expatriate population in the world.
Though the Yazidis have been present in Germany since the early 1990s, their numbers grew during a diaspora that swelled following the invasion of Iraq by ISIS in 2014, which led to approximately 500,000 refugees and several thousand killed and kidnapped.
After expressing his closeness to all members of the Yazidi population, especially those now living in Syria and Iraq, Francis used strong words to denounce the murder of innocent people based on their faith.
“My supportive thoughts and prayers go to the innocent victims of this senseless and inhuman barbarism,” the pope said during the audience on Wednesday.
“It’s unacceptable that human beings are persecuted and killed due to their religious beliefs!” he added.
In the spring of 2015, the United Nations recognized the genocide of both Christians and Yazidi people at the hands of ISIS, which massacred entire families, reduced women to prostitution and launched a deadly “forced conversion campaign.”
“Every person has a right to profess their own religious beliefs freely and without constrictions,” the pope continued, stating that the history of the Yazidi people has been marked by “unspeakable violations of the fundamental rights of the human person.”
The Yazidi ancestral home in the Sinjar province of Iraq has been all but destroyed by the ISIS offensive, and the diaspora that ensued is scattered all over the world.
“The luckiest among you were able to escape, by leaving behind everything they owned, even the things that they hold most dear and sacred,” Francis said.
The plight of the Yazidi people is similar to the suffering many Christians have endured in Iraq and Syria.
“In many parts of the world, there are still religious and ethnic minorities, including Christians, who are persecuted because of their faith,” the pope said. “The Holy See never tires of intervening to denounce these situations, asking for acknowledgement, protection and respect. At the same time, it calls for dialogue and reconciliation to heal every wound.”
The pope reflected on how the tragedy unfolding with the Yazidis is a reminder of the “dark forces” that can awaken within human beings and lead them to “plan the annihilation of a brother,” not recognizing the human dignity of the other.
Francis also voiced his concern for thousands of Yazidis still in the hands of terrorists. Estimates say at least 5,000 young Yazidi women were kidnapped by ISIS in 2014, to be raped and possibly killed.
“I strongly hope everything possible will be done to save them,” the pope said.
“Once more I raise my voice in defense of the rights of the Yazidis, first and foremost the right to exist as a religious community: no one can take on the power of eliminating a religious group just because it’s not part of those considered to be ‘tolerated’.”
Today, Christians and Yazidis are asking for the international community to intervene as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unleashed an offensive in the Afrin province of Syria to eliminate members of the Kurdish separatist party (PKK), by some considered a terrorist organization.
Tensions have been high between Turkey and the Kurds since last September, when the Kurds voted to declare their independence in the territory they control in northern Iraq. The fear in Ankara is that a Kurdish state eventually may also assert control over territories belonging to Turkey.
Many Middle East observers worry that the new fighting will bring fresh persecution for Yazidis and other minorities, including Christians.
“We demand urgent international protection for the believers in Afrin and the cease of this Turkish shelling. We are also against the heavy Turkish shelling and the return of Islamic groups to the region,” said Pastor Valentine Hanan, a Christian, during a service at Ra’i Salih Church in Afrin, according to BasNews.
The Yazidi Association of Germany has confirmed these concerns that would threaten the 15,000 Yazidis living in Afrin.
Francis concluded the audience by appealing for concrete efforts to reconstruct the homes of the Yazidi refugees and preserve the identity of their community.
“May God help us build a world together where we may live in peace and fraternity,” he said.
Francis is scheduled to meet with Erdogan in the Vatican on Feb. 5.