"You tell me how to dialogue with a fanatic," he says in an exclusive interview.
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako says he is working with the government of Iraq to bring Christian refugees to Baghdad.
The majority of Christians who have been driven from villages and towns in the Plain of Nineveh are living in dangerous conditions, in makeshift facilities that are now overflowing. In the Iraqi capital, there would be greater care in terms of hygiene, medical care and personal safety.
The Patriarch is also convinced that the American airstrikes are not enough to stop the pressure and advance of ISIS troops.
Your Beatitude, on CNN, Mark Arabo, a California businessman and leader in the Iraqi-American Christian community, spoke about a “Christian genocide” and a “systematic beheading of children” by ISIS, saying that “there’s a park in Mosul where they have beheaded children and put their heads on a stick.” Can you confirm or deny these reports?
Nothing like that. No beheadings. In Mosul money was stolen, but Christians have not been physically attacked. There was a large mass exodus and great panic in the Plain of Nineveh. People were literally driven out of their villages. There was one fatality—a man, during a tense moment as he was trying to cross a checkpoint.
Is it true that ISIS militants are asking Christians to pay a tax in order to save their lives and are likewise abducting women and taking them as their wives?
These two reports are true. Christian women have been abducted, and taxes have been demanded. In particular, these Islamic fanatics ask Christians for money to allow them to return to their homes. But the Christians don’t trust them. They are people who continually change their minds: they are unreliable. Perhaps today a Christian pays, returns home to stay there in peace, and tomorrow the militants attack him again, and one never knows what the consequences will be.
The government in Baghdad has accused ISIS Sunni jihadists of having thrown hundreds of Yazidis into mass graves, including women and children who were still alive. What can can you tell us about this?
What you’ve heard happened to the Yazidis is true. More than a thousand women have been kidnapped. A great many children are dead. The people have neither food nor water and they feel cut off from the world. They don’t know where to go or what to do.
In speaking about the crisis in Iraq, Archbishop Sivano Maria Tomasi, the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to the United Nations in Geneva, has said that “military action at this time is needed.” What do you think about US military intervention?
Partial strikes are not enough. The solution to the crisis needs a broader agreement, with the involvement of the Kurdish government and the Iraqi central government. Without an overall strategy, the dream of seeing the people return to their homes will not happen.
At this time, do Christians have the right to organize in order to defend themselves, or do you only recommend that they flee?
But how would they organize themselves? First, their numbers are greatly reduced—400,000-500,000 in all. Beyond this, the majority have fled their villages. They are scattered here and there. And then, considering the numbers and their current situation, they wouldn’t be able to raise a militia. And they are facing hardened extremists.
In your opinion, what will we see happen in the days to come?
I fear that the situation is worsening. There is a problem with the refugees and the humanitarian emergency, and another problem with the political order. For now I don’t see any prospects. The whole world must mobilize itself for the situation in Iraq; otherwise, a stable and permanent situation, in my opinion, will permanently slip away.
Is dialogue with the ISIS Jihadists out of the question?
You tell me how to dialogue with a fanatic? You find yourself in front a wall, that’s it! At the beginning of the crisis, I tried to speak to one of them, but it’s difficult, there’s no trust and they continually change their minds.
Is there a risk that the influence of these Islamic Jihadists will reach Baghdad?
There is a risk that they’ll find sympathy. It would be difficult for them to reach Baghdad, but it’s not impossible.
How is the Catholic Church aiding the plight of the refugees?
In all the churches in the country, schools, dormitories, places to eat have been set up. In every city, in every village in the vicinity of the areas attacked by the militia, the reception areas are full. Now the best thing to do is to transfer as many people as possible to Baghdad. I am in contact with the government to make this happen.
How would this transfer need to take place?
The land routes are closed. The only possibility are airplanes. Here in the capital we have more space to accommodate these poor people who are likely to become exhausted at any moment. There are also hospitals and places to treat them. There are already 20 families who have arrived from that hell, but we hope to welcome more shortly.
What are the refugees telling you?
I have heard their testimonies and they are tragic. But I had already been in contact with them, during my visits to Irbil and the villages that had been attacked, with several Christians from those places. To hear it seems like a return to the Middle Ages. My heart weeps in remembering such sad stories, which are marked only by fear and dread of being harassed, beaten and killed. They don’t have anything anymore, neither a house nor financial resources after years and years of sacrifice. But above all, they are afraid that this situation will last for a long time.
Gelsomino del Guerciois a digital journalist and blogger in Rome. His work has appeared in L’Espresso, the Huffington Post, and Il Mattino. Translated from the Italian by Diane Montagna.