In his strongest statement yet, the Vatican’s man in Geneva endorses decisive military action against terror groups, effectively declaring war on extremists.
Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, the Vatican’s top diplomat in Geneva, is not a man to mince his words. For nearly a year now, he has been channeling Pope Francis’s cries for peace by edging closer and closer to endorsing war.
On Wednesday, at an address to the 23rd Special Session of the Human Rights Council on the Situation of Human Rights in Nigeria–Boko Haram, he bit the bullet and endorsed military action against Boko Haram and ISIS in no uncertain terms. “The ongoing violence, persecution and murder at the hands of the Boko Haram group especially in Nigeria, but also in Cameroon, Benin, Chad and Niger, present serious transgressions under international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity which require an urgent and effective response from the involved States, together with the solidarity of the international community,” he said.
“With the merciless acts of this terrorist group, we are witnessing the continued development and dissemination of a radical and ruthless type of extremism inspired by an ideology which attempts to justify its crimes in the name of religion,” he said, according to a statement released by the Vatican. “One cannot be blind to the fact that such extremists groups are growing like a cancer, spreading to other parts of the world and even attracting foreign militants to fight in their ranks.”
Tomasi’s statement, disseminated by the Holy See in Rome, is the most concrete endorsement of military action yet under Pope Francis. In March, in an interview with The Boston Globe’s Vatican expert John Allen, Tomasi hinted that the pope was losing his patience. “We have to stop this kind of genocide,” Tomasi told Allen. “Otherwise we’ll be crying out in the future about why we didn’t so something, why we allowed such a terrible tragedy to happen.”
“There’s a common human dignity we all share,” he said. “And it should be protected at all costs.”
The fighting words amount to a change in longstanding policy for the Holy See, which has traditionally come down hard on military action, especially in previous conflicts. In 2003, Pope John Paul II harshly criticized the American-led buildup in the Persian Gulf ahead of the invasion in Iraq. “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity," John Paul II told Vatican diplomats at the time. “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.”
Last July, as the world seemed to be exploding with conflicts in Gaza, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, Pope Francis seemed to stay on message. “Never war, never war,” he said at his Sunday Angelus on July 27. “I am thinking, above all, of children who are deprived of the hope of a worthwhile life, a future. Dead children, wounded children, mutilated children, orphaned children, children whose toys are things left over from war, children who don’t know how to smile. Please stop. I ask you with all my heart, it’s time to stop. Stop, please!”
But a few weeks later, he told journalists onboard the papal plane from South Korea that the killing had to be stopped. “Where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor,” he told reporters on the plane. “I underscore the verb ‘to stop.’ I am not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ but ‘stop him.’ The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the aggressor is legitimate.”
Addressing the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion on March 11, Tomasi laid the groundwork for this week’s endorsement of military action. “The appeal to religion in order to murder people and destroy the evidence of human creativity developed in the course of history makes the ongoing atrocities even more revulsive and damnable,” he said. “An adequate response from the International Community, that should finally put aside sectoral interests and save lives, is a moral imperative.”
“Can we make fun of the cultural identity of a person, of the color of his skin, of the belief of his heart? A ‘right to offend’ does not exist,” Tomasi said. “Criticism can produce good results if it takes into account that persons are more important than their convictions or their belief and that they have, simply because they are human beings, an innate right to be respected.”