Beirut (AsiaNews) - The visit of solidarity by Eastern Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs to Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, went beyond the traditional pastoral framework and protocol. In the wake of the meeting with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, the focus moved to the legitimacy of the use of force against jihadist aggression and the return of Christians driven from Mosul and the villages of the Nineveh Plains.
The visit ended on Wednesday with a press conference at the end of which Patriarchs Beshara al Rahi and Gregorios III returned to Lebanon, whilst Syriac Catholic Patriarch Younan and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ephrem Karim stayed on a little longer since their Churches, unlike the Maronite and Greek Catholic Churches, have faithful in Iraq.
Held after meeting President Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region and its Prime Minister (and nephew), the conference had nothing conventional.
Right to self-defence
The call for action corresponds to the Catholic teaching on the right to self-defence.
"We are raising the alarm," Syriac Catholic Patriarch Yousef III Younan told L'Orient-Le Jour. "There is no time to lose. Our survival in Mesopotamia is at stake. Free nations who signed the Charter of Human Rights should have the courage to live up to its principles. We call for an international intervention to defend us, not to conquer. We have the right to defend ourselves and we ask to be defended. The international community did well in Kosovo despite Russia's opposition at the time. We will try, with Pope Francis to have our right for a defensive military intervention recognised to deal with the jihadi groups that threaten us."
For its part, the Vatican on Wednesday clarified a statement made by Francis during his press conference on board the plane that took him back from Seoul.
On that occasion, Pope Francis said that in case of "unjust aggression" it was "lawful to halt the unjust aggressor." He was "not saying bombing, making war [against him], but halting him. The means by which one can halt him should be evaluated." Likewise, "A single nation cannot judge how to halt an unjust aggressor."
"After the Second world War came the idea of the United Nations. That is where we must discuss [the issue] and say if there is an unjust aggressor? If that is the case, then how do we stop him?"
It is in this spirit that the international community must be challenged, said Maronite Patriarch Beshara al Rahi.
"We believe letting the jihadists of the Islamic State do whatever they want would be a disgrace," he said. "That a terrorist group of diabolical inspiration is left free to act is an unprecedented scandal. We call on the international community to assume its responsibilities. It is unacceptable that a group of this kind can oppress peoples, whilst the international community fails to defend a group that cannot defend itself."
Wahhabism called into question
For his part, Patriarch Younan implicitly pointed the finger at Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi doctrine as the inspiration for the Islamic State. "This group was born thanks to such support," he said, and now "people are trying to shirk their responsibility in this situation".
Sources close to the patriarchal delegation said that, during the meeting with President Barzani, the latter told Church leaders that the Peshmerga were ready to do their duty to defend Iraq's Christians, but that Kurdistan must be properly equipped in terms of weapons.
President Barzani told members of the delegation that jihadists mined roads and the houses Christians abandoned as they fled their villages. At present, the Peshmerga lack the expertise to clear the mines.
For his part, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ephrem Karim demanded nothing less than an autonomous region for Christians of Iraq, within an Iraqi Federal Republic, which the Iraqi constitution allows. Similarly, he said that Christians should be armed, which some parties in Kurdistan have already called for in light of recent events.
A combative patriarch also called on Ban Ki-moon to visit Iraq, inviting the pope to make a bolder use of his influence on behalf of Iraqi Christians. He also called for the liberation of Mosul and adding that in some cases residents from some villages in the Nineveh Plains could already return home.
Without directly challenging his fellow prelate, Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III spoke in favour of friendliness and living together as alternatives to such a nationalist stance.
Speaking at the same press conference that marked the end of the patriarchal visit, Patriarch Sako said that the Eastern Churches are a group of "small Churches, but by virtue of their unity, they form a Church that is big and strong." (Fady Noun)