It’s not a call for a massive invasion, but the messaging from Vatican officials sounds a lot more friendly to military action than usual. Longtime Vaticanista John Allen expressed surprise yesterday at the sometimes-grudging approval coming from the Holy See about American intervention against ISIS, noting that it stands in stark contrast to its opposition to both Iraq wars. And this approval comes not via background briefings, but very official communications:
Archbishop Giorgio Lingua, the pope’s ambassador to Baghdad, told Vatican radio that the American strikes are “something that had to be done, otherwise [the Islamic State forces] could not be stopped.”
Lingua spoke plaintively of the ordeals faced by an estimated 100,000 Christian refugees from northern Iraq – many of whom, he said, are children – to account for his view of the American campaign.
“You can see these kids sleeping on the streets,” Lingua said, adding, “[there is so much] suffering.”
In a similar vein, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s envoy to the United Nations in Geneva, told Vatican Radio that “military action in this moment is probably necessary.”
Both Lingua and Tomasi went on to say that the international community needs to do more to unmask whoever’s supporting the radical Islamic State forces and to cut off its supply of arms, signaling reservations about widening the conflict.
At the same time, their endorsement of the American action, however grudging, was unmistakable. In light of recent history, it’s a sharp reversal of course.
Normally, the Vatican opposes military interventions of most varieties. As Allen concludes in this article, the events of the last few weeks have outstripped the pacifist approaches preferred by the Holy See, and the brutality of ISIS and its clearly annihilationist ambitions make it clear that this situation requires more active responses. “‘Give peace a chance’ may work as a fervorino,” Allen writes, “but as foreign policy it doesn’t quite do the trick.”
In an interview that will air during today’s edition of The Ed Morrissey Show, I asked Allen to discuss the nuance of this statement, which some thought was a blanket approval for all military interventions. Allen said that it’s no “green light,” but perhaps more of a yellow light. The concern, Allen said, was that a green light could get portrayed as a call for a new crusade — and that would put many other Christian minority communities in Muslim-dominated nations at risk, or even more at risk than they are now. (Allen wrote the excellent book The Global War on Christians last year surveying that risk in detail.) That could cause the same kind of ethno-religious cleansing in other parts of the world — which is what the Vatican feared in earlier American interventions in the region, and why they opposed them.
That wasn’t the only shift in tone coming from the Holy See. The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, which normally issues anodyne blessings and commemorations of holidays and events, today issued a sharp call for Muslim leaders to denounce the Islamic State as well as its “barbarity”:
The Vatican called on Muslim leaders to condemn the “barbarity” and “unspeakable criminal acts” of Islamic State militants in Iraq, saying a failure to do so would jeopardize the future of interreligious dialogue.
“The plight of Christians, Yezidis and other religious and ethnic communities that are numeric minorities in Iraq demands a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, those engaged in interfaith dialogue and everyone of goodwill,” said a statement from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue released by the Vatican Aug. 12.
“All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and must denounce the invocation of religion to justify them,” the statement said. “Otherwise, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? What credibility would remain to the interreligious dialogue patiently pursued in recent years?”
Allen told me that the Vatican appears to be running out of patience with its ecumenical Muslim partners. This looks, Allen said, like the Vatican’s attempt to “cash in on 50 years of ecumenical outreach” in order to marginalize ISIS. The Council’s question is a challenge to their partners, demanding some investment in the risks of peace and tolerance. Pope Francis’ last two predecessors both took a lot of criticism for their efforts to reach out in dialogue with Muslim leaders. Now it’s time to see whether those leaders and their successors have the same fortitude, or whether these have just been empty gestures all along. If after decades of engagement these leaders cannot bring themselves to condemn the forced conversion, beheadings, ethnoreligious cleansing and flat-out genocides of ISIS, then it leaves very little value in continued engagement from the Vatican’s perspective.