08/20/2014, 00.00
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Patriarch al-Rahi in Kurdistan for the future of Christians and the fight against Islamists

by Fady Noun
The cardinal makes a short one-day stop in Erbil accompanied by civil and religious leaders. He will meet with Kurdish President Barzani and visit the archbishop's see. The trip will focus on the fate of Christians fleeing jihadists and the possible use of force to repel the Islamist threat. The issue of relations with Islam and interfaith dialogue will also be discussed.

Beirut (AsiaNews) - The Maronite patriarch, Card Beshara al-Rahi, arrived today in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, for a one-day visit of solidarity - and humanity - with the Christians expelled from their homes and deprived of their property by the black pirate flag of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (EIIL- Daech).

Patriarch al-Rahi was accompanied by Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Syriac Catholic Patriarch Youssef III Yonan. Cardinal Sako, patriarch of the Chaldeans, is already on the ground. The visitors will be under tight protection out of fear of sleeper cells.

In Erbil, the patriarchs will meet the President of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani. They will thank him for welcoming the victims of the great exodus. This will be the first of the two focal points of their visit.

According to some estimates, the families driven out of towns and villages in the Nineveh Plains doubled the number of Christian Kurds, now estimated to be around 120,000 out of a population of about 5 million.

The delegation of religious leaders will then visit the see of the Chaldean bishop in Erbil, a logistical, social, medical, spiritual multipurpose centre and home for scattered Christians.

Whether they are sleeping in parks or on two church benches pulled together, or have already found a home, Christian refugees will be the second focal point for the patriarch's visit. The first thing will be to learn more about them, show them sympathy and then find ways to solve their problems.

The patriarchs will doubtlessly also speak to Pope Francis' personal representative, Cardinal Filoni, who has been in the country for several days, and who yesterday handed a letter to Iraqi President Fouad Massoum. A press conference will conclude Patriarch al-Rahi's day before he flies back to Lebanon at 6 pm.

"Go, go, leave Iraq" is one of Mosul exiles' obsessions, to which London, Berlin, Paris and Stockholm have opened interested arms. "Arm yourself, arm yourself" is that of others. "Stay, bear witness, and resort to international forces" is that of the Eastern Churches.

In fact, the idea is beginning to catch on, especially after Holy Father's declaration during his flight from Korea. Speaking to reporters accompanying him on his plane, Francis said to "halt the unjust aggressor is lawful." He was even on the verge of making a stopover in Erbil, but that would have meant ignoring Baghdad and the Vatican hesitated.

In any event, the issue of the legitimate use of force - or self-defence - is becoming more important in the discourse of Eastern or Western Church leaders. However, for the head of the Catholic Church, it is clear that it is up to the United Nations, not the United States, to decide what should be done to deter the aggressor.

Without making positive or negative comments on US air strikes, what the Catholic Church wants for Iraq constitutes an often unwieldy and slow international process. Nevertheless, US Air support did allow Kurdish Peshmerga to move forward, although with difficulty, in the Nineveh Plains, first around the dam on the Euphrates.

This raises, in turn, a number of questions, including whether there is a plan to partition Iraq. For experts, facts on the ground will decide that.

The duration of air strikes in the United States and their extent will show if the United States is committed to protecting Kurdish borders, or whether Barack Obama is also interested in the fate of tens of thousands of Christians, as well as Iraq's social fabric. If US strikes had begun a week earlier, Christians in Qaraqosh would still be at home, some observers note.

The last point that the patriarch's visit will implicitly raise, or rather emphasize is that of Islam and interfaith dialogue. With the first shock over, high Muslim authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, at the urging of some, condemned the fanatical Islam of which the Islamic state is its archaic and inhuman model. However, for Christian leaders engaged in dialogue, this is not enough. The very existence of this model and its possibility is a problem.

In their view to them, to bear fruit, such a dialogue must be preceded by another one among Muslims themselves. Islam must be urgently purified of practices from another age that have been associated with it under the eyes of a horrified world.

This is another of the future implications of this tragic period in the history of the Middle East, of which Iraq is currently the focus, an Iraq where man's humanity has been violated, and where it is hard to know how to fix this kind of injustice.

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