In an airborne press conference on the way back from Korea yesterday, Pope Francis addressed the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Iraq. In response to a question about the American bombing of ISIS targets, the Holy Father made three important points. One, unfortunately, was not helpful.
First, the Pope said, under Just War theory, it is “licit” for third parties to intervene in order to “stop” the “unjust aggression” by ISIS. Pope Francis emphasized that he did not endorse bombing, specifically, but action to stop ISIS generally. Second, the decision of how best to deal with ISIS must be made by nations acting together in consultation, at the United Nations. Consultation is necessary, he said, in order to prevent any one nation—implicitly, the United States—from succumbing to the temptation to become an occupying force.
There isn’t very much danger of the U.S. seeking to occupy Iraq at this stage, frankly. If anything, Americans in 2014 are disposed to avoid the region altogether. But the Pope’s statements are consistent with Just War theory and entirely appropriate. And perhaps Pope Francis feels justified in offering an oblique criticism of the U.S., which ignored his predecessor’s plea to get U.N. approval for the 2003 Iraq invasion, and reaped the consequences.
The Pope seems to have gone a little astray, though, in his third point. Responding to a question about religious minorities, including Catholics, he said this:
Secondly, you mentioned the minorities. Thanks for that word because they talk to me about the Christians, the poor Christians. It’s true, they suffer. The martyrs, there are many martyrs. But here there are men and women, religious minorities, not all of them Christian, and they are all equal before God.
Pope Francis is right that minorities other than Christians are suffering in Iraq. And Christians would not object to the idea that God loves all people equally, Christians and non-Christians. But the implication of the Pope’s statement—at least in the way his remarks have been translated and transcribed—is that the suffering of Christians gets disproportionate attention, and that it’s necessary to widen the focus to make sure other groups are not forgotten.
With great respect, this misstates the situation. The danger is not that the outside world pays too much attention to Christian suffering, but too little. The media routinely downplays that suffering, notwithstanding the fact that Christians—as Pope Francis himself recently stated—suffer the greatest share of religious persecution in the world today. As for the great powers, they typically look the other way. The United States, for example, did absolutely nothing to help the 100,000 Christian refugees displaced by ISIS in recent weeks, but sent in helicopters to distribute relief to 40,000 Yazidis.
As I say, the transcript may not fairly reflect the sense of Pope Francis’s remarks. Transcripts do not capture inflections. But many in the media will no doubt seize on the remarks to justify their comparative inattention to Christian suffering. That would be most unfortunate. Although non-Christians are surely suffering in Iraq, and although it’s entirely appropriate to remember and help them, there is nothing wrong with stressing the suffering of Christians, especially when one is Pope. Unless people speak out, continually, there is a grave danger that Iraq’s Christians will simply be forgotten.