Yesterday Pope Francis endorsed military action to stop the Islamic State (formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) from persecuting religious minorities, especially Christians and Yazidis, in Iraq. The pope’s statement is to be welcomed—albeit with serious reservations.
As various experts noted, the Vatican is typically opposed to any sort of military action. James Bretzke, a priest and professor of moral theology at Boston College, told USA Today that “popes in recent history have all lined up against any military intervention, including World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and, most recently, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
Indeed, just last month Pope Francis issued a passionate plea for both Israel and Hamas to cease fighting in Gaza and put down their weapons. "Please stop," the pope said in his weekly address from the balcony in Saint Peter's Square. "Brothers and sisters, never war, never war! I am thinking above all of children, who are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, of a future."
So why is this situation different? How is Hamas, a terrorist organization that targets Jews, a Middle East minority, different from ISIS, a terrorist organization that goes after Christians, Shia, Yazidis, and, presumably, if given the chance, Jews? Regarding ISIS, Francis reasoned that “where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor…I underscore the verb 'stop.' I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.'”
The pope is not naïve. What stops violence is not careful verb choice, but violence. So why is it licit to use violence to stop this unjust aggressor and not Hamas or, for instance, Bashar al-Assad?
Last September the pope held a peace vigil to protest proposed U.S. military action against the Assad regime. “May the noise of weapons cease!” Francis proclaimed. “War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity," said the pope, just a few weeks after the Syrian regime launched a chemical weapons attack against civilians in a Damascus suburb. The videos of the aftermath of the attack and the testimony of the survivors documented what many would also consider a defeat for humanity—men, women, and children treated like insects by a vicious ruling order while the world looks the other way, while the servant of the servants of God convenes peace rallies.
Some experts argue that Francis is building his case for support of military action against the Islamic State in terms of “Just War” theory, but for others it is hard not to conclude that given his stand against violence to stop Assad or Hamas, the Vicar of Christ is either a relativist, or perhaps worse, has taken sides in a sectarian conflict.
Even before the Syrian conflict erupted in March 2011, the Alawite-led Assad regime has long portrayed itself as a protector of Christians and other minorities. Syrian regime allies have also put forth variations of the same argument, like the Lebanese patriarch of the Catholic Maronite church, Bechara al-Rahi, who when the Syrian uprising first broke out worried about the fate of Lebanon’s Christians if Sunnis took over in Syria. Indeed, many Christian clerics in Syria have come out openly on behalf of Assad and his murderous policies, a stark reminder that many of the Middle East’s men of faith are little more than spokesmen for the narrow interests of their sect or clan. It is natural and just to seek to protect your own, but there is no scriptural basis for petitioning Caesar to lay waste to the other tribe so that yours may thrive.
The concern then is that Pope Francis may be mistaking sectarian propaganda circulated by Middle Eastern clerics for a humanitarian plea. After all, as the Syrian regime and its spokesmen posit, the problem with the Middle East is the Sunni Arab majority—a danger not only to the region’s many minorities but also, as 9/11 made clear, Americans as well. According to this line of thinking, the United States should partner with Syria, as well as its allies, like the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah, for they all have issues with the regional Sunni majority.
As it turns out, the Obama administration has teamed up with Syria and its allies—but for strategic reasons, not sectarian ones. The White House is tilting toward Iran because it believes, foolishly, there is a grand bargain to be had with the clerical regime. Thus, in Lebanon, the White House has shared intelligence with units of the Lebanese armed forces penetrated by Hezbollah. In Iraq, the administration armed former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to fight his Sunni rivals, and have just signed off on yet another Iranian-sponsored premier, Haidar al-Abadi. And now news comes today from a pro-Assad newspaper in Beirut, that the White House is sharing intelligence on ISIS with the Syrian regime.
The Obama administration and Pope Francis are both correct—ISIS’ gory campaign is a real humanitarian catastrophe. The question is, why are they both blind to other grotesque insults to the innate dignity and freedom of others in the Middle East? Why does Francis elaborate a “Just War” argument to stop ISIS, and not Assad or Hamas? Is it only Christians and Yazidis who merit the care of the world and specifically the Catholic church, or aren’t Jews and Sunnis also created in the image of God?