Pope Francis has given $1 million as a personal contribution to help Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq who have been forced from their homes, according to his personal envoy to the country.
Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, visited Erbil as Pope Francis' envoy from Aug. 12-20.
Erbil, where more than 70,000 Christians have fled from the Islamic State, is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and is within 50 miles of territory held by the Islamic State.
Cardinal Filoni met in private with Pope Francis the day after he returned to Rome, and spoke to CNA Aug. 22.
Cardinal Filoni said he had carried with him one tenth of the Pope's contribution, and that “75 percent of the money was delivered to Catholics, and the remaining 25 percent to the Yazidi community.”
The Islamic State is a recently established caliphate that has persecuted all non-Sunnis in its territory, which extends across swaths of Iraq and Syria.
“Pope Francis gave me a humanitarian mission, not a diplomatic mission, and this is what I always emphasized to Iraqi authorities,” Cardinal Filoni said.
The Pope's decision to send a personal envoy to Iraq, the cardinal said, “meant to me that if he had been able to go, he would have.”
Cardinal Filoni recounted that Pope Francis entrusted him with letters for Kurdish president Masoud Barzani and Iraqi president Fuad Masum presenting him “as his personal envoy and expressing his concern for what Christians and minorities in general are suffering, because they have been uprooted from their lands and persecuted.”
The Islamic State has forced more than 1.2 million Christians, Yazidis, and Shia Muslims from their homes in Iraq, under threat of death or heavy fines if they do not convert.
In the face of such violence, Cardinal Filoni said intervention to stop the aggressor is a legitimate option.
“The Church does not back any war. The right to defend one's self is legitimate. But our Christians in Iraq have no arms. Therefore, it is necessary that someone – in this case the legitimate authorities of the country – should defend minorities, especially those most in danger.”
He suggested that “in an international framework, the United Nations should decide” whether to intervene or not, but added that “the Church will not tell the United Nations what they have or they do not have to do.”
Cardinal Filoni recounted that he heard displaced Christians say, “if the international authorities provide a protected zone for us around our villages, our territory, we should go back there.”
The Pope's envoy also emphasized that in his meetings with Iraqi authorities, he had always been accompanied by representatives of the local Churches.
“At every meeting, I was accompanied by Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Youhanna Moshe, and the apostolic nuncio to Iraq, Giorgio Lingua, as well as others.”
Cardinal Filoni said their meetings addressed concrete issues such as that of the children unable to take their final exams so as to pass to the next year of their schooling.
“The Church deals with the concrete needs of people, but it has to continue caring for the moral and spiritual assistance of our Christians, as well.”
“As long as our Christians remain in the region, we cannot abandon them. As long as even one only Christian lives in Iraq, we will be there.”
“This is Pope Francis' line,” he said. “That we, as shepherds, should carry our sheep on our shoulders and lead them, but we also must walk with them.”
“We must walk in front of them to lead them, walk among them to spur them, walk behind them to encourage them.”