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We must not give up

· Interview with Cardinal Parolin on the dire situation in the Middle East ·

Religious leaders play a fundamental role in fostering dialogue

“We must not forget, we must not give up”. This was the appeal launched by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, with regard to the tragic news that continues to emanate from the areas under conflict in the Middle East, and in particular from those areas hit by the onslaught of offenses by the so-called Islamic State, where hundreds of thousands are being persecuted on account of their faith. In an interview by L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Parolin emphasized the Holy See’s commitment to the populations of the region and recalled that Pope Francis announced a Consistory on 20 October to discuss the delicate situation. The assembly will take place slightly more than two weeks after the meeting of the Apostolic Nuncios in the Middle East, which took place in the Vatican.

Your Eminence, what was the reason for the meeting in the Vatican of the Pontifical representatives in the Middle East?

The Holy Father decided to convoke the Apostolic Nuncios in the Middle East in order to dedicate a reflection on the tragic situation that has been experienced for some time in the region, and to manifest his closeness and solidarity, and that of the entire Church, toward the people who are suffering the consequences of the ongoing wars. Particular attention was dedicated to Christians and to the other groups being persecuted on account of their religious faith, especially in certain areas of Iraq and Syria, by the so-called Islamic State. The heads of the dicasteries of the Roman Curia who have direct responsibility for the Catholic Church in the Middle East also participated in the meeting. Through their presence, the Permanent Observers of the Holy See to the United Nations in New York and Geneva and of the Apostolic Nuncio to the European Union was intended to highlight the international consequences and dimensions of this dramatic situation. These representatives of the Pope give voice in a multilateral range to the Holy See’s position on various issues and maintain continuous contact with the diplomatic representatives of numerous countries. Thus, from direct experience in that land, a rich exchange of information and an evaluation of the situation have been possible, in order to determine what the Church can do, what can be requested from the international community, and to meet today’s somber situation head-on. A further confirmation of how much the Holy Father takes all this to heart is seen in his will to dedicate the 20 October Consistory to the Middle East.

On the basis of the information of the Nuncios, what can be said of the Christian communities and of the other groups who are suffering from the violence in the region?

We have heard, with great feeling and deep concern, the testimony of the unspeakable atrocities being perpetrated from different sides, but mostly by the fundamentalist group of the so-called Islamic State: decapitations, the sale of women, the enlistment of children in deadly battles, the destruction of places of worship. This has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee from their homes and seek refuge elsewhere, in volatile conditions. People are being humiliated in their dignity and subjected to physical and moral suffering. In this regard, the Pontifical representatives and the superiors of the dicasteries who attended the meeting reaffirmed the refugees’ right to return and to live in dignity and security in their own country and in their own environment. It is a right that must be supported and guaranteed as much by the international community as by the nations in which they are citizens.

What can the international community do?

The situation is truly complex. At the root of the forced displacement of millions of people in the Middle East are violent and inhuman conflicts which see involvement, either openly or in the shadows, of mercenary groups, non-state groups, regional and global powers. The choice of armed conflict, rather than dialogue and negotiation, increases the suffering of all the peoples involved. The way of violence leads only to destruction; the way of peace leads to hope and to progress. On several occasions and with the initiatives assumed in the first place by the Holy Father, such as his pilgrimage to the Holy Land — the prayer gathering in the Vatican with the Israeli and Palestinian Presidents, and his messages to the whole world — the Holy See has reiterated its conviction, proven by experience, that all is lost with war, and all is won with peace. The first urgent step for the good of the people of Syria, Iraq and of the entire Middle East is to lay down weapons and to dialogue. The destruction of cities and villages, the killing of innocent civilians, of women and children, of young people recruited or forced to fight, the separation of families, tell us that there is a moral obligation for all, for everyone to say ‘stop’ to so much suffering and injustice, and to begin a new journey in which everyone participates with equal rights and duties as citizens in building the common good, in respecting the differences and talents of each one.

Pope Francis has, many times, denounced arms trafficking as being at the base of all wars.

Sadly, this is true. To speculate on and profit from the lives of others raises serious ethical questions. In an especially grave moment, given the rising number of victims produced by the wars exploding in the Middle East, the international community must confront the issue. The more available weapons become, the easier it becomes to use them. The issue with regard to the so-called Islamic State is even more serious and it would also be necessary to pay attention to the sources that support its terrorist activities through a more or less clear political endorsement, as well as through illegally trading oil and supplying weapons and technology.

Is the use of force legitimate in order to stop the so-called Islamic State?

As was also stated in the final communiqué, the meeting participants emphasized that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor, always, however, in accordance with international law. When the Holy Father, responding to one of the journalists’ questions, affirmed that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor, he specified: “I emphasize the word: ‘stop’. I’m not saying to drop bombs, to make war, but to stop the aggressor. The means used to stop him would have to be evaluated”. On my part I wished to develop some ideas with regard to my recent address to the General Assembly of the United Nations. In any case, as was emphasized in the meeting, one cannot entrust the resolution of the problem only to a military response. It must be confronted more deeply, starting from the root causes which are exploited by the fundamentalist ideology. The international community, through the United Nations and the structures which it is given for similar emergencies, must act in order to prevent potential genocide and to aid the countless refugees who are at risk for a life of hardship and slow but certain death. In the specific case of the violations and abuses committed by the so-called Islamic State, it appears appropriate that the nations of the region be directly involved, together with the rest of the international community, in the actions to be undertaken, with the knowledge that it is not a matter of protecting one religious community or another, or one ethnic group or another, but people who are part of the one human family and whose fundamental rights are being systematically violated.

And the religious leaders?

Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders can and must play a fundamental role in fostering dialogue between religions and cultures, and in teaching mutual understanding. In addition, they must clearly denounce the instrumentalization of religion in order to justify violence. In the concrete case of the so-called Islamic State, particular responsibility falls on the Muslim leaders not only to disavow the pretense of forming a caliphate and of denominating itself the “Islamic State”, but also to more generally condemn the practices, unworthy of man, committed by the extremists, such as killing people for the sole motive of their religious affiliation. As the Holy Father said in Albania, “To kill in the name of God is a grave sacrilege. To discriminate in the name of God is inhuman”. In this regard, there must be recognition and appreciation for the expressions of solidarity with Christians and the other groups suffering in Iraq, on the part of several Muslim leaders and Islamic political leaders who have condemned the conduct of the Islamic State. They deserve to be encouraged. As affirmed in a recent and important declaration by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue: “The plight of Christians, Yazidis and many other religious and ethnic minority communities in Iraq demands a clear and courageous stance on the part of religious leaders, especially Muslims, those engaged in interfaith dialogue and everyone of good will. All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and denouncing the invocation of religion to justify them. Otherwise what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? Even after patiently pursuing interreligious dialogue in recent years, what credibility will there be?”.

What should the response be to the grave humanitarian emergency in the region?

On the part of the international community and its humanitarian structures, a renewed will of solidarity is necessary in order to supply food, water, housing, education for the young, and medical assistance, for the displaced people and refugees throughout the Middle East. The figures with regard to the humanitarian plight are shocking. In Syria, for example, half of the population is in need of humanitarian aid, not to mention the hardships of the refugees, who number in the millions. And behind each number is an actual person suffering, one of our brothers who needs help. The Church for her part is trying to make her contribution, in particular through the local Caritas associations assisted by various Catholic charitable organizations, who assist not only Christians but all those who are suffering, without distinction. In this respect I wish to point out that humanitarian aid to the needy can also provide a context for cooperation between Christians and Muslims.

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Sept. 25, 2018

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