ROME — Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako I has drawn criticism from some quarters for insisting that, although Iraqi Christians have an absolute right to self-defense, protection must come from the state — despite the Baghdad government failing to provide adequate security.
Fides news agency, quoting Lebanese sources, said the Baghdad-based patriarch believes defense of the attacked is an absolute right, but only “the forces of the state should take charge of this defense.” The creation of differentiated militia on an ethno-religious basis “can destroy Iraq,” he said.
The patriarch, speaking last week in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, was responding to comments made by President Masud Barzani of the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan. The Kurdish leader had said he was willing to provide weapons to Christian volunteers to form self-defense militias with a mandate to defend their villages currently in the hands of Islamic State jihadists.
But Patriarch Sako and others fear prevalence of such groups would lead to sectarianism and an escalation of violence, play into the hands of the Islamists who want a fight and bring back the specter of the Crusades.
Critics, on the other hand, point out that the Iraqi government has been ineffective in providing adequate security, and the international community has acted too little, too late.
‘Something Has to Be Done’
“I understand why the patriarch doesn’t want to see Christian militias in place of the state’s protection of all its citizens, as it is a fundamental duty of a state to do so,” said Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “But the problem is that [state protection] isn’t happening, and something has to be done to stop the gruesome attacks of the Islamic State.”
Currently, Iraqi Christians are the only religious minority in the region not to have established militias — a fact that has led to a small number of people taking the initiative and arming themselves.
Evangelical pastor Michel Youssef, an advocate of armed Christian civilians in Iraq, told Act! for America that forming militias in Iraq is the “only way to protect our families and friends from attacks, because we are tired of waiting for an action from the government, which is preoccupied with politics and never looks after us.”
Other proponents argue that if ordinary U.S. citizens can take up arms to protect their property — as many have done recently in Ferguson, Mo., in the face of a breakdown in law and order — Iraqi Christians threatened with much greater violence and death should be able and encouraged to do so.
Mulilateral Humanitarian Intervention
Church leaders are not expected to advocate military action, but neither are they always likely to forbid it when it comes to self-defense, a principle of just war.
Pope Francis has so far advocated multilateral humanitarian intervention to protect civilians from “unjust aggressors” in Iraq, while remaining purposely vague about the use of military action. Other senior Church officials have openly supported military intervention of some kind, but similarly stopped short of specifically endorsing U.S. airstrikes or any specific operations.
Lay Catholics in favor of militias for self-defense purposes, however, see no inconsistency with Church teaching.
“The right to defend oneself is a clear doctrine; it’s a fundamental human right, an inalienable right, and people lend the exercise of that right to the state,” said Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based think tank the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.
“The first duty of the state is to protect the people, but if the state is unable to fulfil this, then the right to defend oneself reverts to the person, because such a right cannot ever be taken from that person — and nor can it ever be given away; it cannot be ‘alienated.’ This is literally what we mean when we say the right to defend oneself is inalienable,” Harnwell added.
Problem of ‘Illegitimate’ Forces
Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai — from a country that is no stranger to sectarianism militias, which played a key role in Lebanon’s civil war — recently warned against non-state armies in his country. Such forces should be considered “illegitimate,” he said, as they would result in the return of the country to the “law of the jungle and an increase in crime.”
But proponents of militias argue that northern Iraq, where some U.S. weapons have fallen into the hands of ISIS, is different.
“The fact that the state is unable to defend its citizens means there is already the law of the jungle in operation — it’s the perfect example of lawlessness,” said Harnwell. “And preventing minorities who are being systematically wiped out from defending themselves will only work in favor of the aggressor.”
One source close to the Vatican in Rome feared that Patriarch Sako’s comments represented appeasement, while a senior diplomatic official, speaking to the Register on condition of anonymity, predicted that if the Islamic State begins making serious inroads into Lebanon, Christian militias will inevitably become an everyday reality.
Jayabalan similarly sees an increase in violence as a foregone conclusion, as self-defense “may require taking the offensive against and destroying” the Islamic State. “There’s the likelihood of increased, rather than decreased, violence,” he said. “Cases such as these reveal the emptiness of pacifist slogans.”
Like many, he doesn’t wish to see Church leaders publicly advocating militias, but, nevertheless, he would like to see laypeople take the initiative and establish them in order to defend themselves.
“What authority can they appeal to? Western governments won’t act effectively because they fear being seen as sectarian,” he said.
“No one has yet given a good answer to the question [of] why Christians shouldn’t act in self-defense,” Jayabalan said. “There’s too much moral preening going on. When people are being beheaded and crucified and the state is unable to defend them, do we really have to wait for the United Nations?”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.