As police struggled to contain the looting in Ferguson this week, some store owners reportedly armed themselves to defend their property.
A few thousand miles away in Iraq, Christians are facing even greater violence and threats to life. Yet due to ineffectiveness on the part of the state and the international community, they are largely defenseless and at the mercy of marauding Islamists whose barbarism has shocked the world.
Many are beginning to now question why, when ordinary Americans can arm themselves against ragtag looters and rioters, Iraqi and Syrian Christians are not encouraged to use weapons to protect their families and property from significantly more brutal and arbitrary violence.
That anomaly is now even being raised in Rome diplomatic circles. One senior official, speaking to me on condition of anonymity, believes that if the Islamic State begins making serious inroads into Lebanon — a country that’s no stranger to sectarian armed groups — Christian militias will become an everyday reality.
Small numbers of armed Christians are already established in Iraq and Syria. A group which calls itself "The Lions of the Canyon" reportedly has been protecting several Syrian villages while other Christian militias took up arms in Aleppo for the first time in 2012.
Evangelical pastor Michel Youssef, an advocate of armed Christian civilians in Iraq, recently told the website Act for America that the idea to form militias in Iraq was the “only way to protect our families and friends from attacks because we are tired of awaiting an action from the government which is preoccupied with politics and never looks after us.”
In the face of this, some are surprised there aren’t more civilian militias already. “The morality of stopping the Islamic State is a no-brainer,” said Kishore Jayabalan, Rome director of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. “They clearly have a right to self-defense and no one would object to their exercising it when every other sectarian group in the region already does.”
Understandable reticence on the part of Church leaders to encourage the creation of such groups may have something to do with it. Pope Francis has advocated multilateral humanitarian intervention to protect civilians from “unjust aggressors” in Iraq, but he would never endorse any particular action and so remains purposely vague, arguing that such intervention does not require using bombs or “making war” but protection “by some means.”
Other senior Church officials have openly supported military intervention of some kind, but similarly stopped short of specifically endorsing U.S. air strikes or any particular action.
But lay Catholics in favor of militias see no inconsistency with Church teaching. “The right to defend oneself is a clear doctrine, it’s a fundamental human right, an inalienable right, and people lend the exercise of that right to the state,” said Benjamin Harnwell, founder of the Rome-based think tank, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute.
“The first duty of the state is to protect the people — but if the state is unable to fulfil this, then the right to defend oneself reverts to the person because such a right cannot ever be taken from that person — and nor can it ever be given away — it cannot be ‘alienated.’ This is literally what we mean when we say the right to defend oneself is inalienable,” Harnwell added.
Opponents of militias fear prevalence of such groups would lead to an anarchical escalation of violence, play into the hands of the Islamists who want a fight, and bring back the specter of the crusades.
As recently as last month, Lebanese Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Rai warned against non-state armies in Lebanon. Such militias, which played a major role in the country’s civil war, should be considered “illegitimate,” he said, as they would result in the return of the country to the “law of the jungle and an increase in crime.”
But proponents argue that Northern Iraq, where some U.S. weapons have fallen into the hands of ISIS, is different. “The fact that the state is unable to defend its citizens means there is already the law of jungle in operation — it’s the perfect example of lawlessness,” said Harnwell. “And preventing minorities who are being systematically wiped out from defending themselves will only work in favor of the aggressor.”
Jayabalan, who doesn’t expect nor want the Pope and prelates to explicitly advocate militias or other specific actions, believes laypeople should nevertheless just establish them themselves. “What authority can they appeal to? Western governments won’t act effectively because they fear being seen as sectarian.
“No one has yet given a good answer to the question why Christians shouldn’t act in self-defense,” he said. “There’s too much moral preening going on. When people are being beheaded and crucified and the state is unable to defend them, do we really have to wait for the United Nations?”
Edward Pentin began reporting on the Vatican as a correspondent with Vatican Radio in 2002. He has covered the Pope and the Holy See for a number of publications, including Newsweek and The Sunday Times. Read more reports from Edward Pentin — Click Here Now.
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