With the escalating crisis in Iraq, Pope Francis has decided to name a personal envoy to assure Christians and other minorities suffering at the hands of Islamic militants of his spiritual closeness and the Church’s solidarity.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, announced briefly this afternoon that Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, will represent the Holy Father to Iraq.
The situation facing Christians in Iraq has gotten increasingly worse, following the expansion of the forces of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) to the plain of Nineveh. In July, an ultimatum demanded Christians convert, pay the “infidel” tax or be killed, which led thousands of Iraqi faithful fleeing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Iraq’s so-called Christian capital of Qaragoush, southeast of Mosul, fell Wednesday night to ISIS forces.
Though some support has been received from organizations worldwide, Pope Francis, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, and Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, are all emphasizing the the crisis’ increasing severity and calling for urgent help.
“At the moment, the cardinal is preparing himself to take on this mission,” Fr. Lombardi said, noting he is “well-known” and seems to possess the “appropriate skills and experience for the position.”
The 68-year-old Italian served as apostolic nuncio to Iraq from 2001 to 2006, during the time of the US-led war. After his various nunciature positions, he worked in the Vatican’s secretariat of state, as sostituto, before taking up his current role as prefect of the evangelization congregation in 2011.
“In light of the grave situation in Iraq,” a communique released today by the Vatican reads, “the Holy Father has nominated Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, as his personal envoy to express his spiritual closeness to the populations that are suffering and to carry to them the solidarity of the Church.”
Fr. Lombardi underscored how “the Holy Father has really been struck by” recent events unfolding in the region, and is “very concerned.”
To express “the Church’s unity in prayer and solidarity,” will be a key priority of Cardinal Filoni’s role.
The Vatican spokesman stressed that more detail related to the cardinal’s departure date and role will be announced gradually.
Though the Holy Father may organize a meeting at the Vatican for the nuncios to Middle Eastern countries in September, Fr. Lombardi said, “it’s more urgent that the Cardinal go,” than to pin down an exact date.