The horrid truth of this moment in Iraq is that it is, finally, a moment of clarity. The lucidity, if one dare call it such, that emerges from the long fog of war is a scene of utter futility and devastation. The hideous symbols that signify the moment are the final flight of Christians and other religious minorities before the brutal extremes of the most virulent of the pan-national terrorist groups to have emerged in the Middle East.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at the moment is a state only in the abstract, a statement more of ambition than reality. Yet it has effectively taken over huge sections of Syria and Iraq, including oil resources and power-generation facilities, in its attempt to construct a wide-flung caliphate in the region. More violent and fundamentally dogmatic than even al-Qaida, the Islamic State has become the latest and most formidable threat to any hope that Iraq might somehow gain its equilibrium and form governing structures representative of all of the ethnicities and religions contained in its borders.
The Islamic State wants nothing to do with inclusive governance. It is brutally forcing conversions under threat of death. In its wake, hundreds of thousands of Christians are fleeing territory that can claim some of the deepest roots in Christian history. This is no longer a matter of "complex" geopolitics or of oil wars. The politics of this certainly can generate strange alliances -- the enemy-of-my-enemy dynamic is at work in several directions -- but the urgency has to do with the assault of innocents by religious and political fanatics who have no regard for law, culture or human life.
As Msgr. John Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), put it, "We are witnessing, at the hands of extremist thugs, the eradication of Christianity in the cradle of civilization." A recent CNEWA release noted that fewer than 150,000 Christians remain in Iraq, where more than a million coexisted with multiple Islamic and other religious communities prior to 1991.
It dangerously distorts the reality of the moment, however, if we reserve our moral outrage for the indisputably repulsive acts of the Islamic State. For that threat did not arise out of nothing in the deserts of the Middle East.
The year 1991 is important, because it was the year that the United States took its first steps down a regrettable path that has gone on for nearly a quarter of a century. That path has led to far more chaos and destruction than peace. With the final remnants of the Christian population now scrambling for borders and safe haven in other countries to escape Islamic State marauders, the bitter fruit of decades of military folly is on full display. This is former Secretary of State Colin Powell's Pottery Barn analogy come to full reality: We broke that country completely and we will be paying for it far into the future. We miss the point entirely if we ignore the whole bloody arc of 24 years that witnessed the criminal destruction of a country:
- From the senior George Bush's oil war, Desert Storm;
- Through Bill Clinton's 10 years of sanctions that were directly responsible for the deaths of a half-million Iraqi youngsters under the age of 5, and for the utter collapse of Iraq's infrastructure and educated middle class;
- Through the lunacy of the occupation of Iraq conceived by the younger Bush in league with the likes of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on demonstrably false claims.
It is not a sign of political tolerance but of ongoing political confusion that Cheney still has access to national forums from which he continues to advance his delusions about that period of history. For the rest of us, the lesson should be strikingly clear: Our quick and repeated resort to war and the brutal use of sanctions yielded a bitter harvest. What we created was a condition infinitely worse than the disease we were attempting to treat.
It is necessary to carry the burden of that history into the urgency of the current moment, for part of that history was the overlooked or ignored voices of religious leaders -- popes, women religious, lay peace groups and local pastors -- insisting that war was not the solution.
Those same leaders and groups, while appealing to the international community for whatever assistance it can provide, are also the ones most directly involved in the work in those border areas where refugees are pouring in, looking for safe haven.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, a New York-based nonprofit, is an agency of the Holy See working mainly in the Middle East. It has launched a campaign to rush emergency assistance to tens of thousands of Christians forced to flee the city of Mosul in northern Iraq. More information can be found on the association's website.
Catholic Relief Services, a U.S.-based agency, is partnering with Caritas Internationalis, a consortium of international Catholic agencies, to provide relief for refugees from Iraq. More information on CRS work in that region and ways to contribute can be found at its website.
Pope Francis has appealed to 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."
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, repeated the pope's words in a recent letter to President Barack Obama, urging the United States "to answer this call in concert with the international community."
For those who construe a green or yellow light or other permission in Francis' words during his airplane news conference on the way back from South Korea, we would only urge reading the entire segment of that response. Yes, the pope said it was "licit" to stop the unjust aggressor. But he qualified that statement: "I underscore the verb 'stop.' I'm not saying 'bomb' or 'make war,' just 'stop.' " How the aggressor is to be stopped should be evaluated by the international community, not by one country's decision, and he suggested the United Nations as a venue.
More telling, perhaps, is his warning that "we nevertheless need to remember how many times, using this excuse of stopping an unjust aggressor, the powerful nations have dominated other peoples, made a real war of conquest." In one economically stated sentence, Francis seems to not only turn the question back on the questioner but also give a micro-history of the last 24 years of U.S. involvement in Iraq.
We dare not take too much solace in finally having an enemy almost everyone can agree on. The enemy owes a great deal to our own national stupidity and rush to war, not to mention the weaponry we left behind.
It is beyond time for any reasonable outcome in Iraq. History shows the difficulty of stopping the war machine before it is too late, and the battle with extreme forces is likely to go on for the foreseeable future. Facing such a grim prospect, we strain for a bit of hope and an answer to that fathomless question: What can we do?
As a nation, we have poured inordinate amounts of treasury into what has amounted to the destruction of Iraq and the scattering of its citizenry. As people of faith, our personal treasury may seem miniscule, but it is one way we can show solidarity with those suffering the consequences of international violence. Both CNEWA and CRS are worthy recipients of whatever we can give. Further, Kurtz has requested two special collections at the beginning of September to aid those in need in the Middle East. Look for details from your parishes.
People of faith can step into this moment of urgency by understanding the harsh lessons of the last 24 years and by adding a layer of action by giving, whatever your means, to the rescue of those whose lives have been forever altered by the demons of war and religious intolerance.