The World Council of Churches (WCC) says dialogue is not possible with Iraq’s Islamic extremists, who have forced about one million Iraqis – including Christians – to flee their homes. However, the council stops short of calling for military intervention.
Peter Prove of the Geneva-based WCC told swissinfo.ch that immediate action is needed to protect and give humanitarian aid to Christians and other minorities facing attacks by the organisation known as Islamic State, a Sunni Muslim jihadist group formerly known as Isis.
Christians in Mosul are among the oldest communities of their kind. But since 2003, when former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was ousted, their numbers have fallen. Estimates of the number present when extremists swept into the city in early June vary from 30,000 to just a few thousand. Only a few Christian families are said to remain in Mosul.
swissinfo.ch: What have you heard about what is happening in the affected region?
Peter Prove: We have received several reports from some of the key church leaders about what exactly transpired in Mosul and in other parts of the region affected by the military actions of the Islamic State. We have received, for example, photographs and testimony about the houses of Christians, Shiites and other minorities being marked by militant fighters and about the threats that either the minorities, especially the Christians, had to convert to Islam or they would have to pay the special tax or leave with only their clothes or be subject to execution and that their properties would become property of the Islamic State.
The result has been that essentially the entire Christian population of Mosul was forced to flee. They are all now internally displaced, largely located in the Kurdistan region, and this is also of course happening with the other minorities. Essentially we see the social architecture of Iraq, or at least in the Islamic State-controlled areas, being narrowed to a uniform extremist agenda and all diversity in those societies being attacked and expelled.
swissinfo.ch: What is the WCC doing or has it done to help, alert and raise awareness of the situation?
P.P.: All of us in the World Council of Churches, but also many in the international community, feel almost powerless to confront a development of this rapidity, of this extremity… We are grateful for the international media attention on the matter, but we think the direct impact of the situation can be better conveyed and the urgency of the problem can be impressed upon the international community for immediate and more direct action.
The World Council of Churches has always taken the view that military action is always the worst and last resort in a situation like this. Pluralism and coexistence can really only be founded upon a process of dialogue and mutual cooperation.
We see the recent history of military interventions in the region which, we think, has achieved very little other than to provide opportunities for extremists, and therefore we are not really favourably disposed to military intervention. However, in this case, it seems that with a group like the Islamic State, dialogue is not really a possibility in the current context. Immediate action is needed to protect the communities and to push back against this extremist agenda and the actions that Islamic State has been undertaking in the region.
How that is achieved and by what precise means we are still reflecting upon within our constituency, but also with our counterparts within the international community, also in the United Nations system. Certainly urgent humanitarian action is required and I am very relieved to see the most recent reports about those [from the Yazidi minority] on Mount Sinjar having been able to escape from the encirclement by militants thanks to some targeted interventions.
swissinfo.ch: The WCC has written an open letter to the UN about the situation in Iraq. What do you hope for from the UN?
P.P.: The UN is as always our best available mechanism for collective action in response to urgent threats in the international arena. We know very well about the difficulties of pursuing action through this community of nations.
In the field of humanitarian action, it’s clear the UN is, and must be, the lead instrument in securing the means necessary and the practical possibilities for reaching the affected communities and providing them with the necessary means for sustenance. And also at the political level, we think that a situation like this requires a collective response, bringing together the community of nations not on a sectarian basis, but as a genuine collectivity of humanity.
swissinfo.ch: The WCC has initiated religious dialogue. Are we far from a possible coexistence between religions or can we surmount the obstacles?
P.P.: What we see or have seen historically is a Middle East which has been an expression of religious, social and ethnic pluralism and that has been a great strength and example: that communities with very different religious beliefs, from different ethnic and social origins, have created a rich tapestry of human existence and heritage. This tapestry is now being unravelled and destroyed.
The societies of the Middle East will be so much weaker, poorer and less stable without that pluralism. We’re aware of the steps and, of course, of the practical demographic reality whereby communities are being separated forcibly or for the purpose of their own protection and creating monolithic societies.
We are aware of even calls from our own constituency, from the church leaders, for the establishment of Christian provinces within Kurdistan, within Iraq. I can understand the need, the desire for that, given the attacks, threats they face. But this would really also be a tragic outcome. It would be, in effect, the destruction of that rich and diverse tapestry of society in the Middle East.
World Council of Churches
The Geneva-based WCC was founded in 1948. Its goal is the search for Christian unity.
By the end of 2013, the WCC had 345 member churches, representing more than 500 million Christians.
The Roman Catholic Church is not a member, but there are close links between it and the WCC. For example, a joint working group meets annually.
Swiss humanitarian aid boost
At the beginning of June, Switzerland increased its financial assistance to its partners on the ground in Iraq by CHF3.7 million ($4.1 million), to CHF8.6 million. This is to provide food and material aid to internally displaced persons in northern Iraq, especially children and families, a foreign ministry statement said on August 15.
In addition, three specialists from the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit have been seconded to the United Nations to strengthen the humanitarian response in northern Iraq. Further deployments are currently under review.
The statement said that Switzerland was “extremely concerned” and condemned the serious violations of international law. It called on Iraq to redouble its efforts to re-establish the rule of law and respect for human rights throughout the country.