WASHINGTON — At the start of August, jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — known as ISIS, ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and most recently as IS (Islamic State) — fresh from their brutal expulsion of Christians from Mosul, swept into several northern Iraqi towns, including two with a large community of Yazidis, another religious minority with ancient roots.
Before the close of the weekend of Aug. 2-3, an estimated 200,000 Yazidis had left their homes in Sinjar for the mountains with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and a smaller group of Christians were also on the move, victims of the militants’ policy of religious cleansing.
The Washington Post consequently reported that tens of thousands of Yazidis were then stranded on top of Mount Sinjar, and a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament alerted followers on Twitter that the harsh conditions resulted in the deaths of 70 children.
The Islamic State’s rapid advance fueled anxiety that Kurdistan, which is now harboring an estimated 1 million displaced Iraqi Christians and has thus far maintained secure borders, could also fall victim to the IS juggernaut.
On Capitol Hill, the news sparked pleas for Washington to intervene before more religious minorities were killed and calls for immediate U.S. military assistance for the Kurds.
On Aug. 7, President Barack Obama formally authorized airdrops to the Yazidis stranded in the mountains and also limited U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions. But he emphasized that his goal was to contain, not defeat, the jihadist fighters and that the Iraqi government, led by a new prime minister, must take responsibility for mounting a more effective response to the threat posed by IS.
The desperate turn of events in northern Iraq prompted fresh demands for a Washington-led strategy that could provide a regional plan for relief, protection and resettlement of displaced Iraqis.
Pope: Intervention Needed
Meanwhile, the Pope has repeated his prayers and concern for Iraq in tweets from his @Pontifex account. The U.S. bishops called for special prayers and assistance for Iraq on Aug. 17.
And on Aug. 9 — after the first U.S. airstrikes on IS positions in support of Kurdish troops — the Holy Father sent a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, appealing “to the international community to take action to end the humanitarian tragedy now under way.”
In his letter, the Holy Father stopped short of specifically recommending that an international military force should intervene on behalf of northern Iraq’s beleaguered Yazidi and Christian communities.
But commenting to Vatican Radio Aug. 13 about the letter, Archbishop Silvio Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, noted that the Pope said the tragic humanitarian catastrophes of the last century “compel” the international community to take action.
This means there is a “moral imperative” to act, according to the norms for international intervention specified in Article 42 of the U.N. charter, including, if required, “to use force,” Archbishop Tomasi elaborated. “All the force that is necessary to stop this evil and this tragedy.”
Prior to President Obama’s authorization of force and help, Iraqi Christian leaders expressed fears that the West would remain on the sidelines as IS fighters forced the evacuation of entire Christian towns and indiscriminately killed civilians, including children.
“We are facing real genocide, but all the world has been silent, especially what we call the ‘First World,’” said Bishop Barnaba Yousif Habash, based in New Jersey, who has written President Barack Obama and visited both the State Department and Capitol Hill, pleading for U.S. action.
Shortly after Bishop Habash offered his take, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, issued a statement that condemned the Islamic State’s latest actions. Ambassador Power said the administration had not abandoned the Iraqi people and urged their leaders to “move swiftly to form a new, fully inclusive government that takes into account the rights, aspirations and legitimate concerns of all of Iraq’s communities.”
Yet, over the summer, as ISIS gained territory in Syria and Iraq — and also in Lebanon — Power and other members of the Obama administration have been criticized for failing to respond to warnings of the militants’ growing strength and extremist ideology.
Prior to the airstrikes, the White House hosted a meeting of Iraqi Christians, and Speaker of the House John Boehner organized a similar gathering, which included 10 House members and church-affiliated aid groups like Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which was already providing assistance in Iraq.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., a leading advocate for religious freedom in the House, was at the meeting called by Boehner. On Aug. 4, Wolf released an open letter to President Obama that outlined action items that could make the issue a U.S. foreign-policy priority.
Wolf’s letter echoed a key goal of Church-affiliated aid groups: Provide U.S. humanitarian assistance through “trusted NGOs [non-governmental organizations] — like Catholic Relief Services ... who are already on the ground trying to help but need U.S. assistance and leadership to reach more people.”
In his letter, Wolf said the president should “direct the secretary of state and USAID administrator to reprogram existing funds to provide these resources to trusted NGOs on the ground,” a demand that reflected frustration with the Iraqi government’s failure to effectively funnel U.S. aid to displaced people through non-governmental organizations.
William O’Keefe, senior director of advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, who joined the meeting organized by Speaker Boehner, told the Register that his organization has directly funded emergency relief and is also working closely with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and other U.S. agencies.
“CRS has committed about $1 million of our own funds through September, and another $1 million for the following 12 months, to make sure the basics are covered,” he said. “Our partner is Caritas Iraq. We are providing food, water and a basic household kit, which includes cooking and hygiene supplies. That is for immediate needs.”
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, who participated in the meeting, emphasized the continued need for leadership from the White House.
As IS secures additional territory, the likelihood that Iraqi Christians will be able to remain in their homeland continues to fade.
Shea recalled that the Boehner meeting included a wide-ranging discussion of possible locations where displaced Christians could be resettled in Iraq or Kurdistan and a review of the services needed to smooth that hard-going transition. But the discussion left some participants raising questions about the feasibility of carrying out such a plan.
Thus, Shea expressed her fear that it might “be over for religious minorities in Iraq.”
“The Church wants the Iraqi Christians to stay, but they will need to be propped up with a new infrastructure, jobs and government services,” she said. “It is not clear that any of that will exist in Kurdistan or Basra, in southern Iraq.”
She noted, however, that the “consensus among the members of Congress was that the U.S. should offer asylum, like France has done.”
With IS amassing power, Shea noted that the ongoing protection of Iraq’s vulnerable minority groups — those forced from their neighborhoods and those still in their homes — is a major concern. She proposed that the U.S., with its superior intelligence capabilities, should provide an “early warning system” that would alert Christians and others when IS militants pose an immediate threat.
Prior to the airstrikes, Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, went a step further than Shea and called for the White House to “propose an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in order to consider a resolution, to be offered by the U.S., authorizing the use of force in Iraq and Syria to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that is taking place and to prevent genocide.”
Assist and Pray
Edward Clancy, the director of evangelization for Aid to the Church in Need, joined with Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad to call for Aug. 6 to be “World Day of Prayer for Peace in Iraq.” He said his organization, which has focused on developing a secure water supply for displaced Christians, would take no position on the issue of military assistance.
“The Church’s view is that war and military intervention would be a last resort,” said Clancy.
Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute, received an invitation to a Sept. 7 Emergency Summit on the Crisis in the Middle East in Washington, organized by the White House.
“I think the meeting will touch on four areas — Gaza, Egypt, Syria and Iraq,” said Kassab, who noted the summit offers a vital opportunity to “raise awareness of the plight of Christians in Iraq.” He endorsed the need for U.S. military assistance.
“I am advocating for that to empower the Kurdish and Iraqi armies, to create a strong response force with equipment, training and intelligence,” said Kassab, “capable of fighting back.”
On Aug. 13, Patriarch Sako went considerably further, issuing a public statement that called on the United States to join with members of the European Union and other nations to act to “clear the Nineveh Plain from all the elements of jihadist warriors.”
But as the United States reluctantly turned its attention back to Iraq and a remarkably capable foe on the battlefield, some Catholics warned that this enemy requires a more comprehensive effort to halt its progress than limited airstrikes and other military tactics.
Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs at The Anchoress on Patheos.com, noted that one former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, had described IS as “evil incarnate.” Scalia agreed with Crocker’s assessment, and she said Americans must be prepared to engage this threat in the supernatural realm.
Scalia recalled that, during the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt led the nation in prayer for ultimate victory against Hitler, and she asked whether this 21st-century nation still understood the need for divine intercession in the battle between good and evil.
Scalia concluded that ultimate victory over the latest form of the same “evil that instigates human savagery on this level” requires “a faith; a language and method of engaging with the supernaturalism that lies beneath and sustains a movement like IS.”