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Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who returned from Iraq after his visit as personal envoy of Pope Francis, met the Pope to inform him about the mission entrusted to him.
Cardinal Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, said Pope Francis "was really taken" by his description of Christians and other minorities forced from their homes in northwestern Iraq by militias belonging to the Islamic State terrorist group, according to Catholic News Service.
The Pope met Cardinal Filoni early Aug. 21, the morning after the cardinal returned to the Vatican following an Aug. 13-20 visit to Iraq.
Cardinal Filoni, a former Vatican nuncio to Iraq, told Fides Agency about the meetings and impressions that marked the days spent in the devastated Middle Eastern country:
Your visit was an emergency humanitarian trip which involved Christians and the other inhabitants of northern Iraq. What did you see?
It was a mission in the suffering accomplished especially among Christians who escaped from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Uprooted from their homes, from the simplicity of their daily lives, to end up catapultated in an unpredictable situation. To find oneself, from one day to the next, without a home, without clothes, without all the bare necessities that one takes for granted and that now no longer exist, such as no water to wash oneself, with a temperature of 47 degrees [Celsius, or 116 degrees Farenheit]. Or sleep on the street or in the garden, under a tree or under a plastic cover. With women used to working in the house, who appear disorientated. With children who are perhaps the only ones who do not understand the drama of the situation, and they run to and fro. With the elderly thrown in a corner and the sick who do not know if there is a doctor or medicines for them.
Is there an encounter, an event that particularly struck you?
A mother showed me her little 3 month girl, saying that while they were fleeing from Mosul, the baby’s gold earrings were removed. The object in itself is not important, but that violence also expresses contempt towards the little ones. I said: they have removed the earrings, but the most precious things are still with you: your child and your dignity. This wounded dignity that no one could take away. They were happy. They began to clap.
How were you welcomed?
The fact that the Pope was unable to be present personally and immediately sent his personal envoy – not a diplomat, was a significant sign that he wanted to share everything with them. And I lived those days among them. I felt privileged compared to them, for the fact of having a room where to sleep and a bit of water to wash my hands. But I shared everything with them. I did not represent myself, but the Holy Father, and this sharing everything with them was a sign of the Pope’s closeness. I visited Christian and Yazidi villages. And then I participated in the life of the local Church. Even the Bishops, priests, religious men and women had to flee and had to find a place where to sleep. Through the envoy, the Pope wanted to encourage everyone, tell everyone that they have not been forgotten.
Returning from Korea, Pope Francis recognized that the way to stop the unjust aggressor is to be sought in international bodies.
The Church as Church is and will always be against war. But these poor people have the right to be defended. They have no weapons, they have been driven out from their homes in a cowardly way, they have not engaged the enemy.
How can one guarantee the right of these people to live in dignity in their own homes?
Certainly not giving way to violence and trying to contain it in every way. But we cannot hear the cry of these people who tell us: help us, and defend us.
For this purpose, would it not be useful to know in the first place who provides money and weapons to jihadists, and aim at stopping the flow?
These are bodies and groups that operate showing that they are well supplied with arms and money, and one wonders how it is possible that all this passage of arms and resources escapes the control of those who have the duty to monitor and prevent such tragic developments. The question I heard from many is that on "remote control," on who moves things from far away. But I think that, for now, it is difficult to give an answer.
You were Nuncio in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Can the current crisis be put in relation with the events of 2003 and the way in which an end was put to that regime?
Yes and no. On the one hand, an upheaval in the Country that has created many critical situations and suffering has been produced, even if we must never forget that before there was not a calm and ideal situation. On the other hand, more than ten years have gone by. The more we move away from those events, the more one wonders if what is happening today is just the fault of others and of those facts of the past, or if there are other responsibilities. And we need to ask what has been done in all this time, and what could have been done.
Even the Pope has insisted that the victims of what is happening in Iraq are not only Christians, but all minorities. What does this emphasis suggest?
Obviously in the West, the situation of Christians is known. But, for example, the Yazidi have asked us to talk about them because – so I have been told – "we are a people with no voice and no one talks about us." The dramatic situations that I have seen and what they are experiencing really makes them the first victims. But there are Shiite villages from which all had to run away. And then the Mandaeans, and all other groups.
You spoke with influential political leaders both in Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad. Do they still share a unifying perspective for the future of the country or are the centrifugal forces unstoppable now?
Iraq is a composite country. A political-geographical expression which appeared from 1920 onwards, where the extent of the country is not perceived as uniformity but as multiplicity. The Authorities and the bishops speak of a mosaic of presences, cultures, and religions. Of course if this mosaic remains intact it has its own beauty and a future. But if one begins to remove the tiles, sooner or later everything can fall apart.
The unity of the State is guaranteed by the Constitution, but then it has to be realized in the life of the Country and this is difficult, partly because each group carries their trauma, suffering, long persecution, injustice. Now Iraq is a Country to be rebuilt, and can remain united only if such units and the respect of different identities find space.
In the West, some take advantage of the events in Iraq to relaunch the contrast between Christianity and Islam.
There is a fact: as I have already said, the attacks affect Christians, Yazidis, Shiites, but also against Sunnis. So the question cannot be set as a conflict between Islam and Christianity. On the other hand, those who are carrying out these terrible actions against minorities do it in the name of an intolerant political-religious ideology. And this is something that should make one think.