ISIL & Religious Freedom: The Role of the Use of Force

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Christian refugees fleeing ISIL live in tents on the grounds of a Catholic church in Erbil, Iraq.

You’ve likely heard the alarming reports. Last month, twenty-one Coptic Christians were murdered in Libya by the self-declared Islamic State.  A week later, hundreds of Assyrian Christians were taken hostage by the group in Syria. Since the first major territorial gain by ISIL in early 2014, when they took over much of Anbar province in Iraq, millions of people have been displaced from their homes, including Christians and other religious minorities. As ISIL made territorial gains, it terrorized all those who didn’t subscribe to its warped interpretation of Islam and support its power grab. The group has made its acts of brutal violence well known throughout the world.

It’s clear that something must be done to stop these horrendous attacks and protect all who are threatened, including religious minorities. Pope Francis and the Holy See have reminded the international community on several occasions that it is morally licit to use force to stop an unjust aggressor. At the same time, they have also emphasized that any use of military force must be proportionate and discriminate, and employed within the framework of international and humanitarian law.

While the use of force is licit, it must not be the only tool used to counter the brutality of ISIL. ISIL was able to gain power through its manipulation of political and economic exclusion in the region. These grievances must be addressed if we hope to truly put an end to the group’s threat. In a February 23rd letter to President Obama and leaders in Congress, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the USCCB, and Bishop Oscar Cantú, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, made the powerful observation that “inclusive governance and meaningful participation in political and economic life inoculate populations against the false promises of extremism.” These are just two elements among many that should be part of a holistic intervention to undermine ISIL.

Developing a multi-faceted approach to such a complex problem is no easy task, but it is one worthy of our energy and resources. People’s lives are at stake. The brutal acts we hear about on the evening news only begin to give us a picture of the harsh reality facing those living in areas threatened by ISIL. Bishop Cantú recently returned from a solidarity visit to the Kurdish region of Iraq where he encountered some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Iraqis, Christians, Yazidis and Muslims alike, who have abandoned their homes in order to flee the terror of ISIL. Bishop Cantú witnessed the important work of development agencies, like Catholic Relief Services, that are serving those in need. There is a great need to support those who are displaced as well as those countries and communities that have taken them in.

ISIL has shone a light on the reality of religious persecution in our world. More must be done more to promote international religious freedom and protect religious minorities. While grateful for our nation’s commitment to supporting humanitarian assistance and for its efforts to encourage the formation of an inclusive government in Iraq that respects human rights and religious freedom for all, we know that these efforts must be strengthened and new strategies developed in order to truly transform the conflict with ISIL and counter their extremist message and brutal tactics. As Congress looks at the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) currently pending before it, we must remember these lessons – that limited force, consistent with international and humanitarian law, may continue to be necessary, but it cannot replace other diplomatic and political tools necessary for a lasting peace in the region.

Colecchi headshot

Dr. Stephen M. Colecchi is director of the USCCB Office of International Justice and Peace.

Go deeper:
Read the USCCB’s call for prayer and action on behalf of those facing religious persecution in the Middle East and around the world.

Read the letter of Archbishop Kurtz and Bishop Cantu to President Obama and Congressional leaders on religious persecution in the Middle East and the Authorization for Use of Military Force pending before Congress.

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