Sectarian violence in Iraq has worsened dramatically in recent days, especially for Christians in the war-torn nation, prompting Pope Francis to appoint an envoy to meet with religious and government leaders in Iraq as well as with those Christians who have been forced from their homes in fear.
"The news reports coming from Iraq leave us in dismay and disbelief: thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women taken and carried off; violence of every kind; destruction of historical, cultural and religious patrimonies," the pope said. "All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God! War is not to be waged in the name of God!"
The pope's words came shortly after just one overnight period saw Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters attack the predominantly Christian town of Qaraqosh and other neighboring villages, causing some 100,000 people to flee with just the clothes they were wearing. Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad compared the exodus of Iraqi Christians to Jesus' carrying of the cross before his crucifixion, saying, "Christians are walking on foot in Iraq's summer heat [and are] facing a human catastrophe and risk a real genocide. They need water, food, shelter. … The situation is going from bad to worse."
As some U.S. politicians debate and even downplay the severity of the crisis in Iraq, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the Catholic Church's international relief agency providing humanitarian aid with Caritas International, reports that 1.2 million people have been displaced since January as ISIS has taken control of several Iraqi provinces. The militant group is specifically targeting Christians and other religious minorities and has set up checkpoints to seize the possessions of those fleeing their homes. "Many are living in empty houses, schools, clinics, church compounds and abandoned buildings, with living conditions deteriorating," CRS reports.
Pope Francis is sending the former Vatican representative, Cardinal Fernando Filoni, to Iraq to meet with displaced Iraqi Christians. The pope is also sending his envoy with money to aid in the humanitarian relief effort as thousands are in need of water, food, clothing, shelter and other basic necessities.
The pope also asked Catholics throughout the world to pray for persecuted Christians in Iraq and for all people of goodwill "to take initiatives to put an end to the humanitarian drama underway, to take steps to protect those involved and threatened by violence and to ensure the necessary aid for so many displaced people whose fate depends on the solidarity of others." He has also urged the United Nations to bring together the international community to help end the violence and to aid those who are suffering. "The violent attacks that are sweeping across Northern Iraq cannot but awaken the consciences of all men and women of goodwill to concrete acts of solidarity by protecting those affected or threatened by violence and assuring the necessary and urgent assistance for the many displaced people as well as their safe return to their cities and their homes," Pope Francis wrote to U.N. Secretary Gen. Ban Ki-Moon.
Here at home, I invite religious leaders throughout our city and state to join me, parishioners of the Archdiocese of Baltimore and all people of good will for an inter-religious and ecumenical prayer service on Sunday, August 24, at 2 p.m. at the Basilica in downtown Baltimore. Though we may differ in our beliefs, we are united by a common desire for peace and by our belief in the power of prayer. Therefore, we will come together to pray for an end to the suffering, violence, and religious persecution taking place in Iraq. And we will pray for the individuals and families that have been most directly impacted by the terrible acts that have been committed in the name of religion. During the prayer service, we will also hold a special collection to assist the efforts of CRS, which estimates it will provide humanitarian aid to some 30,000 Iraqi families over next six months.
As we witness from so far away the human suffering in Iraq, I invite all people of good will to join me in praying with Pope Francis, who appealed "to the conscience of all people and every believer," when he said, "May the God of peace create in all an authentic desire for dialogue and reconciliation. Violence is not conquered with violence. Violence is conquered with peace. Let us pray in silence, asking for peace."
William E. Lori is archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty. His email address is email@example.com.