WASHINGTON — Amid rising global alarm at the targeting of religious minorities by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), Pope Francis has ratcheted up the Holy See’s demands for “action” — including limited military intervention — by the international community.

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Pope Francis stated, when asked if he supported U.S. airstrikes in Iraq during an Aug. 18 press conference on his return flight from Korea.

“I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I don’t say ‘to bomb’ or ‘make war,’ [but] ‘stop it,’” the Pope added.

His statement offered fresh evidence that the Holy See no longer believes that dialogue, negotiations or even economic sanctions can stop the Islamic State (IS).

The Pope’s nuanced comments and formal statements not only mark a departure from the Vatican’s previous call for political and diplomatic solutions to the crisis in Iraq; they also suggest a shift in thinking about the merits of U.S. military intervention in Iraq, where a fragile government has failed to stop the jihadist organization from killing civilians and forcing religious minorities to flee their homes.


‘Very Different Circumstances’

When President George W. Bush approved the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pope John Paul II was among his most vocal critics. But as the Islamic State solidifies control over a broad swath of territory that bridges Syria and northern Iraq, the Vatican is responding to very different circumstances that call for immediate action, say Church leaders and policy experts.

“Pope Francis is rightfully saying that there is a need to stop the aggression through the limited use of force by the proper authorities,” Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., told the Register.

“He would be quick to add that all the principles of just war still apply: Force … should be used only to stop the aggressor and not target innocent civilians.”

Archbishop Kurtz, the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted that Catholic moral teaching permits the use of force to protect the innocent.

“If I am on the street, and I find someone attacking an innocent victim, I need to find ways to thwart the aggressor. Sometimes force is the only means” that will serve that purpose, he said.

Just months ago, the Holy See joined the United States and other Western nations to focus on the need for a democratically elected “unity” government in Iraq that would represent all religious communities, including Christians. But political wrangling delayed the formation of a new government, as ISIS advanced across northern Iraq.

By early June, tens of thousands of Christians had fled for their lives to Kurdistan, which has increasingly struggled to repel the ISIS juggernaut.


Patriarch’s Appeal

On Aug. 13, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad made a desperate appeal for the U.S. and the European Union to “clear” the Nineveh Plain of the fighters.

However, Pope Francis has not explicitly endorsed U.S. airstrikes. In his Aug. 18 press conference, and in his letter to the secretary general of the United Nations, the Pope called for collective action, under the auspices of the United Nations.

The Holy See and other Church leaders have struggled to bring their concerns about ISIS to the public square. Americans, according to opinion polls, have been wary of engaging new problems in Iraq, after the drawdown of U.S. troops from the previous war.

This week, however, Americans were forced to confront ISIS’ brutal tactics, after the jihadist organization released a video documenting the execution of U.S. journalist James Foley, who was beheaded.

On Aug. 19, the Obama administration acknowledged that a Delta Force unit had been deployed to rescue Foley and other U.S. citizens held by ISIS in Syria, but the mission failed.

Media reports have noted that some jihadist organizations raise funds to support their activities by kidnapping Europeans for ransom. The official policy of the U.S. government opposes any such transactions, and, reportedly, the White House refused to pay for Foley’s release.

Foley’s execution tragically highlights the Church’s concerns about ISIS and the threat it poses to innocent civilians. The news also provides further context for the Vatican’s urgent call for “action” to restrain the jihadist organization, rather than mere statements of condemnation of its human-rights abuses.


Can’t Stand on the Sidelines

Joseph Capizzi, a fellow at the U.S. Naval Academy and an associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, said Pope Francis’ recent comments on the permissibility of force signal the importance of protecting “Christians and other religious minorities.”

Noting that some experts believe the Pope has offered tacit support for U.S. intervention in Iraq, Capizzi said that fast-moving events may have led the Holy Father to concede that “the U.S. is positioned with the British to do something immediately.”

Rusty Reno, the editor in chief of First Things, said there is no evidence that the Vatican has altered “its view of war and peace.”

Rather, said Reno, the Pope is responding to the “brutalities perpetrated by the Islamic State.”

“This is not a situation in which anyone imagines economic sanctions or forceful diplomacy will be effective. So the Holy Father calls for military action,” he said.

“Pope Francis knows that the Gospel call for peace can’t mean standing on the sidelines as the innocent are slaughtered.”

During his in-flight press conference and in previous statements, the Pope emphasized that the international community, under the auspices of the United Nations, should act in concert to stop ISIS and protect the vulnerable.

Pope Francis explained that collective action was better than unilateral action by one country, because the process of establishing common ground delineates the authentic goals of justified military intervention.

The Pope said, “One single nation cannot judge how you stop … an unjust aggressor,” and he said the United Nations was the proper forum for such deliberations.

That remark underscored the message of the Pope’s Aug. 13 letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that called for the international body to intervene in Iraq.

“In renewing my urgent appeal to the international community to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now under way, I encourage all the competent organs of the United Nations, in particular those responsible for security, peace, humanitarian law and assistance to refugees, to continue their efforts in accordance with the preamble and relevant articles of the United Nations Charter,” read the Pope’s letter to the U.N. secretary general.


Archbishop Tomasi Clarifies

Afterward, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, clarified the Vatican position and the Pope’s preference for common action under the auspices of the United Nations during an Aug. 13 interview with Vatican Radio.

“What seems to be particularly important in the letter of the Holy Father,” noted Archbishop Tomasi, “[are] the expressions that he uses: The tragic situation ‘compels’ the international community. There is a moral imperative so to (speak), a necessity to act.”

Archbishop Tomasi said the U.N. Charter allows for the use of force when entire groups of people are targeted, raising the possibility of genocide.

“In this case, when every other means has been attempted, Article 42 of the Charter of the United Nations becomes possible justification for … [a]ll the force that is necessary to stop this evil and this tragedy,” Archbishop Tomasi told Vatican Radio.

Yet, in contrast to the Vatican’s statements about the permissibility of force in Iraq, President Barack Obama used different arguments to justify the airstrikes on ISIS positions in northern Iraq. The goal of the mission, he said, was to protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and to alleviate a humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar. Tens of thousands of Yazidis, members of another ancient religious minority in Iraq, fled to Mount Sinjar and were stranded without emergency supplies.

The White House's supporters argue that the president's refusal to set forth a plan for a broader engagement with Iraq reflects American concerns about the practical value and the costs of such involvement. Critics, on the other hand, contend that the United States' refusal to marshal its allies to address the challenge posed by ISIS has created a humanitarian crisis in both Syria and Iraq.

This week, the United Nations confirmed that the official death toll for the civil war in  Syria that began in March 2011 had reached  191,369, and Western powers were blamed for failing to stop the carnage.

“The killers, destroyers and torturers in Syria have been empowered and emboldened by the international paralysis,”  charged Navi Pillay, who leads the United Nations human rights office, in a statement to reporters. "The fact that the crisis has been allowed to continue for so long, with no end in sight, and is now spilling into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, is “an indictment of the age we live in.” 

Now, policy experts are waiting to see if  the White House might reassess its goals in Iraq. For example, in statements following the execution of James Foley, the president also noted the targeting of Christians, among other groups, and it was unclear whether the administration had broadened the scope of its mission to include the eradication, rather than the containment, of ISIS.


Administration’s Inconsistency

“It’s very hard to find any consistency in the current administration’s statements on the use of force or in its action either,” said CUA’s Capizzi, echoing the criticism of a growing number of policymakers on Capitol Hill. “We need to make that case to our politicians: The current foreign policy in that region is a mess.”

Capizzi further emphasized that military intervention should be part of a broader strategy for addressing the threat posed by the jihadist organization, expressing concerns raised by the Holy See and the U.S. bishops, who have called for a U.S.-led effort to respond to the needs of displaced religious minorities.

Archbishop Kurtz called for a special collection “to provide humanitarian relief and pastoral support for our affected brothers and sisters in the Middle East,” to be held the first or second week of September.

“When President Obama announced the plans for U.S. airstrikes, his primary goal was the protection of U.S personnel and facilities in Iraq,” noted Michael Novak, the author and public intellectual who previously served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“In fact, the brutality we are facing involves many more than Americans — Iraqi Christians, Yazidis, moderate Muslims and others,” Novak told the Register.

“This is a humanitarian crisis; we need to respond to that. And the protection of the innocent is the focus of the Pope’s efforts.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.