Pope's Remarks On Iraq Seem To Support Use Of Military Force

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Tess Vigeland speaks with John Allen, associate editor with The Boston Globe, about Pope Francis' recent comments that appear to support the use of force against the the Islamic State.


When Islamic State terrorists killed James Foley earlier this week, they said it was in retaliation for American military action in Iraq. The U.S. has conducted around 100 airstrikes and the White House says those strikes will continue. So far, at least, the U.S. is the only Western power intervening in Iraq, but somewhat supportive comments came this week from an unexpected source - the Vatican. On a return flight from South Korea, Pope Francis spoke to reporters about the situation in Iraq. John Allen was on that flight. He's an associate editor for The Boston Globe. And he says the Pope's comments amounted to a cautious, yellow light for intervention

JOHN ALLEN: Basically, what the Pope said was that it is legitimate to stop an unjust aggressor. But he cautioned that that does not always mean dropping bombs. And in any event, he said it would be better for this sort of thing to be done under the warrant of U.N. authorizations. So at the end of it, you would have to say it was a kind of balanced, mixed verdict on what the U.S. is doing to try to stop the ISIS forces in northern Iraq.

VIGELAND: Was it a break from previous Vatican policy?

ALLEN: Historically and, I mean, in recent history, the Vatican has been bitterly critical of any U.S. use of force in the Middle East. With the two Gulf Wars - both in '91 and 2003 - John Paul II was kind of the champion of the moral opposition to those wars. So in that context, you would have to say this was much more approving.

VIGELAND: Well, and in fact, Pope Francis, just last year, was very outspoken and even mobilized a day of prayer for peace to oppose U.S. intervention in Syria. Yes?

ALLEN: Yeah, that's right. But I think the relevant difference is that when the Vatican has opposed a Western use of force in the Middle East in the past, it's primarily because they'd been worried about the aftermath. I mean, the reason that they were opposed to trying to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, for example, or Bashar al-Assad in Syria was the fear that what would follow would be the rise of an Islamic theocracy in which religious minorities and Christians, in particular, would have bull's-eyes on their backs.

Well, there's no longer any need to be worried about the aftermath because that is the present reality. In northern Iraq, you have an estimated 100,000 Christians that have been driven from their homes and are now living as refugees - hundreds, at least, have been killed. For the first time in more than 1,200 years, there is no Catholic Mass being celebrated in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. And that's because all the Christians are in exile. I think the Vatican is no longer primarily concerned about some theoretical future scenario that might follow a military intervention. They're much more concerned with trying to stop the carnage in the here and now and, of course, not just for the Christians. They want to make the point that it's all minority groups that are at risk.

VIGELAND: John, is it possible to say whether this statement from Pope Francis would presage what he would say about future conflict? Does this set a precedent?

ALLEN: Well, I think the Pope is trying to be very careful not to set a sweeping precedent of approval for military action every time it's being justified in the name of protecting some civilian population. But that said, I think what it does illustrate is that although the Vatican and the Catholic Church is obviously in favor of peace, they are not committed to pacifism. If there will be cases going forward in which civilian populations are getting their teeth kicked in, there seems to be no other way to bring that to a halt other than the use of force. In those limited sets of circumstances, I don't think you're going to see the Vatican standing in the way.

VIGELAND: That's John Allen. He's an associate editor with The Boston Globe and a longtime Vatican watcher. John, thank you.

ALLEN: You are very welcome.

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