Pope Francis' appointment Friday of a special envoy to Iraq demonstrates his desire that diplomacy have an impact for the persecuted minorities, particularly Christians, suffering as a result of the establishment of the Islamic State.
The Vatican announced Aug. 8 that Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was appointed Pope Francis' “personal envoy” to Iraq, “to express his spiritual closeness to the people who suffer and to bring them the solidarity of the Church.”
“The decision shows that the Holy Father trusts in me, but it shows, moreover, Pope Francis' concern for the situation” of Christians who are suffering, “the fact that they have been humiliated, that they had to suddenly leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere,” Cardinal Filoni commented.
Fr. Federico Lombardi, Holy See press officer, said that Cardinal Filoni will “foreseably head first to Kurdistan,” whither many of the displaced persons from Mosul and its surroundings have fled.
According to a source in the Vatican state secretariat who asked to remain anonymous, Cardinal Filoni’s mission may start at the beginning of the next week.
Cardinal Filoni may also be entrusted with meeting nuncios and patriarchs in the region, networking with them and beginning to organize a meeting with the Pope in the Vatican, the source maintained.
The meeting could occur in September, according to the Holy See press office.
Fr. Lombardi pointed out, however, that the cardinal's trip “is still being prepared” and that “it is too early for details.”
From 2001 to 2006, Cardinal Filoni was apostolic nuncio to Iraq, as well as to Jordan; thus he is well acquainted with many of the religious and civil leaders of the region.
When the Iraq War began in 2003 and both diplomats and journalists fled the country, Cardinal Filoni remained at the Baghdad nunciature, staying there for the duration of his post.
He remained despite the targeting of Christians after the fall of the Hussein regime, and refused to adopt special security measures. In 2006, a car bomb was detonated in front of the nunciature.
The current nuncio to Iraq and Jordan is Archbishop Giorgio Lingua.
As papal envoy, Cardinal Filoni is expected to assist the nunciature, restoring his network in the region and helping to give a new diplomatic impetus.
The increasingly worrying situation in Iraq has brought Pope Francis to take a strong diplomatic initiative, supported by two tweets which followed the urgent appeal for Iraq delivered Aug. 7.
In the first tweet, Pope Francis urged “all men and women of goodwill to join me in praying for Iraqi Christians and all vulnerable populations.”
In the second tweet, the Pope reprized the hashtag #weprayforpeace and asked his followers to “take a moment today to pray for all those who have been forced from their homes in Iraq.”
The crisis has followed the establishment of the Islamic State, a caliphate spread across portions of Syria and Iraq. It is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as militant Sunni Islamist state.
The Islamic State emerged as a rebel group in the Syrian civil war, but in June began spreading its operations into Iraq, overrunning the city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province.
All non-Sunni persons in the Islamic State have been persecuted – Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims have all fled the territory.
Thousands of Christians and other minorities fled Mosul after a July 18 ultimatum demanding they convert, pay jizya, or be killed. They went to other towns in Nineveh province and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many were stripped of their possessions at Islamic State checkpoints, escaping with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
The Islamic State took control of Sinjar, a Yazidi-majority town fewer than 80 miles west of Mosul, on Aug. 3, expelling its residents.
On Aug. 7, the Islamic State seized Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh, a city of 50,000, nearly all of whom are Syriac Catholics. Bakhdida is located 20 miles southeast of Mosul.
Tens of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and Shias have fled their homes in territory controlled by the Islamic State.
The Obama administration launched air strikes on the Islamic State beginning Aug. 8. Secretary of State John Kerry called the caliphate's acts a “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Yazidi and Christian minorities," and "grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide.”
The previous day, the U.S. had carried out air drops of food and water for the Yazidis who had fled Sinjar and are trapped on a nearby mountain.