IRAQ

Pope Francis backs use of force to protect Iraqi religious minorities

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 8:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 August, 2014, 1:28am

Pope Francis said efforts to stop Islamic militants from attacking religious minorities in Iraq were legitimate but added the international community - and not just one country - should decide how to intervene.

The pope was asked on Monday if he approved of the unilateral US air strikes on militants of the Islamic State group, who have captured swathes of northern and western Iraq and northeastern Syria and have forced minority Christians and others to convert to Islam or flee their homes.

"In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor," Pope Francis said.

"I underscore the verb 'stop'. I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', just 'stop'. And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated."

The pope also said he and his advisers were considering whether he might go to northern Iraq to show solidarity with persecuted Christians. But he said he was holding off for now on a decision.

The pope's comments were significant because the Vatican has vehemently opposed any military intervention in recent years.

Pope Paul VI famously uttered the words, "War never again, never again war", at the United Nations in 1965 as the Vietnam war raged, a refrain that has been repeated by every pope since.

However, in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks - in the Vatican's mind an "unjust aggression" - John Paul defended the "legitimate fight against terrorism", and the right of nations to defend themselves against terrorist attacks.

Recently, the Vatican has been showing support for military intervention in Iraq, given that Christians are being targeted because of their faith and that Christian communities, which have existed for 2,000 years, have been emptied as a result of the extremists' onslaught.

The US began launching air strikes against Islamic State fighters on August 8, allowing Kurdish forces to fend off an advance on their regional capital of Irbil and to help tens of thousands of religious minorities escape.

Meanwhile, the UN refugee agency said that it hoped to begin a massive 10-day air, road and sea aid operation later today to help the more than 500,000 Iraqis driven from their homes by jihadist rebels.

"In response to the deteriorating situation in northern Iraq, UNHCR is launching one of its largest aid pushes aimed at helping close to half a million people who have been forced to leave their homes," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said.

To date, the United Nations estimates that 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced by fighting this year.

Among the initial supplies are 3,000 tents, 200,000 plastic sheets, 18,500 kitchen sets and 16,500 jerry cans.