Saying that the upsurge of violence in Iraq has awakened the world, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, has urged the international community to defend and protect the fundamental human rights of all those affected.
In an interview with ZENIT Tuesday, the archbishop not only addresses his view on whether the escalating violence in the Middle East is, as Pope Francis has said, a kind of Third World War, but also speaks on what is being and what ought to be done to address the atrocities.
He also discusses speculation that President Obama will meet Eastern Patriarchs and US Bishops in Washington D.C., and the potential impact of a papal visit to the UN in 2015.
ZENIT: At the press conference held yesterday at the annual Rimini meeting, when asked about what the Holy See is doing to respond to the crisis in the Middle East, you said the Holy See proposed a meeting in which the bishops from the affected territories in Iraq would inform US President Barack Obama about what is going on. Can you explain this further?
Archbishop Tomasi: I am not aware there will be a meeting with President Obama. I’ve heard there is a meeting of the bishops among themselves in Washington with representatives of the Churches of the Middle East and probably they’ll meet with bishops of the United States, but that’s an assumption that I make. Beyond that, I don’t have a formal schedule. So we need to wait a little bit to see how things develop. [In the] second week of September, I think, the meeting is scheduled to take place and we need to see how, who is going to, in fact, attend, [whether] beyond the announcement there’ll be such a meeting and what their specific objectives are going to be.
ZENIT: From your experience, do you think it’s important the President of the US would take part, in order for there to be a concrete result, response from the United States?
Archbishop Tomasi: I think it would be useful for anybody to listen to the people who have been on the ground, who bring the right experience and knowledge of what is happening in their communities, especially the Christians and other religious groups that are present in the area in the Nineveh Plain and Mosul. Direct knowledge is always helpful to arrive at very concrete and prudent decisions.
ZENIT: Do you believe the Pope’s envoy to Iraq, Cardinal Filoni, or his report, which speaks of the ISIS violations he observed in the country, will be presented to the UN?
Archbishop Tomasi: It seems … In Geneva, a special session of the UN Council of Human Rights, is convened for September 1st. There could be the possibility that a direct voice from the Vatican, for example in the person of Cardinal Filoni, who has recently visited the religious and ethnic communities of Northern Iraq and the refugees camps where the victims of the so-called Caliphate were forced to escape for survival. The meeting could be very helpful. It will be useful that the International Community strongly uphold the Fundamental Rights of all people in Northern Iraq and provide for the humanitarian aid they need in their desperate situation since they could flee with only the clothes on their back. Christians have the same Human Rights that any other citizen and their religious identity should not be the excuse for indifference.
ZENIT: And would it be Cardinal Filoni who would speak to the UN?
Archbishop Tomasi: It’s a possibility. Decisions are still in the process of being made.
ZENIT: Can you speak on what His Eminence Filoni said in his report, and about his observations?
Archbishop Tomasi: From interviews given to the media and other public commentaries, the cardinal has addressed the plight of all the refugees created by the so-called caliphate, the killing of innocent people, the need for the international community to respond with the necessary resources like water and food there would allow a survival of these uprooted communities. He has also called for the protection of these communities and for the possibility to return to their homes in safety. It cannot be assumed by the international community that Christians, Yazidis, and other religious groups should simply accept exile because they are identified as religious groups.
In conclusion, the two most important observations I think are: emergency humanitarian aid and protection. The patriarchs of the Oriental churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, have remarked that there is a need of having the presence of the “Blue Helmets” of the United Nations [UN peacekeepers], who for a while should step in and stabilize the situation and guarantee the protection of the people returning to their villages.
ZENIT: What do you think the Holy See should do to respond? And are they? Will they?
Archbishop Tomasi: Confronted with all the violent explosions in many parts of the world, but in particular in the Middle East, the Holy See has been actively engaged through the voice of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, who has not spared any efforts or words to say that the only reasonable way into the future is a way of dialogue and negotiation, so that people can live together, respecting each other, even acknowledging their differences, but recognizing the basic humanity we all share.
The first step in the response to this culture of violence is to recognize each other’s dignity and equality, as members of the human family. Then, the Holy Father has added the urgency of prayer and the mobilization of the spiritual resources of the community worldwide to ask God for the gift of peace because peace is a gift from God.
And then, we need to motivate the international community to take on its responsibility, because when a state cannot protect its own citizens for a variety of reasons, then it is important that the international community take up its own duty to protect these people.
ZENIT: And would this duty to protect these people involve weapons?
Archbishop Tomasi: The choice of means for protection will be determined by the states, by the members of the international community. It’s not the Church’s task to indicate the specific means which should be used to protect the people who must be protected. The Church will remind that there is a duty to protect and this responsibility has to be exercised through the mechanism that the international community has given itself to face emergencies like the one that we confront in northern Iraq.
ZENIT: What specifically, according to you, should Christian communities worldwide do to help these people?
Archbishop Tomasi: The Holy Father has demanded that we pray and create a public opinion favorable to the protection of these human beings who are at risk. The international community is called to protect victims of oppression not defended by their own government or at risk of genocide and this independent of the fact that may be Christians or Shiite or Sunni. The fundamental human rights of any human being deserve to be protected, because each one of us has the equal dignity and equal value as member of the human family and as child of God.
ZENIT: What is Europe doing to help these people?
Archbishop Tomasi: As part of the international community, the European Union should join in the search for an adequate answer to the crisis.
ZENIT: If the Pope were to visit the United Nations, would this make a difference? If yes, how so?
Archbishop Tomasi: Well, past experiences show that the visits of the Popes to the United Nations have always generated not only interest in the media, but a great sensibility, a renewed sense of responsibility on the part of the international community as such. Hopefully, if Pope Francis decides to visit the seat of the United Nations, I am sure it would generate not only an interest in problems related to peace and justice in the world, but he will also probably reawaken a sense of duty in the international community’s responsibilities that they should carry out to protect the victims of any violence and of any injustice.
ZENIT: Pope Francis has said the situation in the Middle East is “the Third World War,” just taking place in “pieces.” Do you agree this is World War III? Why?
Archbishop Tomasi: The Holy Father has caught the imagination of the world with the expression that we face a Third World War. The expression forces us to reflect on the many conflicts around the World from the Central African Republic, Libya, Congo to Syria and Northern Iraq, just to mention a few. This explosion of violence conditions the whole world. True, there are now many centers of power with separate or divergent interests, but the globalization of a culture, where personal or national interests only prevail, facilitates the recourse to arms for the solution of differences. Pope Francis calls us to embrace a different culture of solidarity and dialogue as the only way to build a common future of peace and progress.