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Pope Francis on Iraq: ‘I do not say bomb, make war — I say stop’

Pope Francis expressed tentative support for military retaliation against the Islamic State during a press conference Monday, saying “where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say this: It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.”

The pope, speaking to a group of reporters while flying back from South Korea, said that “it would seem” that the Islamic terrorists in Iraq constitute an unjust aggressor, but that “one nation alone cannot judge how to stop an unjust aggressor. After the Second World War, there was the idea of the United Nations. It is there that this should be discussed.”

Papal support for the United Nations goes back to Pius XII, who was influential in its founding and formation in the 1930s and ’40s. Speaking shortly before the signing of the U.N. charter, he said, “No one can hail this development with greater joy than he who was long upheld the principle that the idea of war as an apt and appropriate means of solving international conflicts is now out of date.”

Inflammatory reports to the contrary, Francis agrees with Pius XII. “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underline the verb: stop. I do not say bomb, make war — I say stop by some means.”

Francis’s reticence makes sense in light of Catholic just war doctrine, which outlines the conditions necessary for a faithful Catholic to support military action. It holds that “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; there must be serious prospects of success;” and that ”the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”

In an Aug. 9 letter to U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, Francis emphasized the importance of international cooperation on the issue, writing “the tragic experiences of the twentieth century, and the most basic understanding of human dignity, compels the international community, particularly through the norms and mechanisms of international law, to do all that it can to stop and to prevent further systematic violence against ethnic and religious minorities.”

Francis recently sent Cardinal Fernando Filoni to the region as a personal representative, and said he is considering making the trip himself. “I am willing,” he said. “At the moment it is not the best thing to do, but I am ready for this.”

He expressed concern not just for the Christians threatened in Iraq, but all those in danger: “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.”

Mosul’s Chaldean Catholic archbishop, now living in exile in Erbil, was less sanguine. “Your liberal and democratic principles are worth nothing here,” he said in a recent interview. “You must take strong and courageous decisions, even at the cost of contradicting your principles. You think all men are equal, but that is not true: Islam does not say that all men are equal. Your values are not their values. If you do not understand this soon enough, you will become the victims of the enemy you have welcomed in your home.”

The Chaldean Catholic Church is one of many non-Latin churches in communion with the pope, many of which have distinctive liturgical rites (styles of worship) and have the freedom to deviate from Latin custom (many, for example, allow married priests).

“I lost my diocese,” said the archbishop. “The physical setting of my apostolate has been occupied by Islamic radicals who want us converted or dead.”

Francis also spoke about a possible trip to the United States next year and his desire to visit China, which has ramped up persecution of Christians in recent months, destroying crosses deemed too large or prominent and razing churches to the ground.

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