Editorial: Broken Iraq

“You break it, you own it.” — 2002 quote attributed to Colin Powell, warning U.S. leaders of the consequences of invading Iraq.

“I don’t think this is our responsibility.” — Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House, commenting on the rapidly spreading sectarian war in Iraq in 2014.

Twelve years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the United States is watching in disbelief as cities and towns are falling to a radical Islamist insurgency. Cities like Fallujah and Mosul, where so many Americans died, are now controlled by Islamic militants too radical even for al-Qaida. Worse still, the destabilization in Iraq is part of a broader collapse of the existing order in the Middle East, with Syria now inextricably bound up in this dark revolution, and neighboring states in peril.

We must not forget the victims of this extremism, particularly our fellow Christians.

While the American reason for invading Iraq was simple, if ultimately unfounded — finding and destroying weapons of mass destruction owned by the Hussein regime — it caused a dramatic upheaval in that corner of the Middle East and a host of unintended consequences. Shi’ites from Iran, Syria and Iraq formed one bloc, while Sunnis from Syria, Iraq and nearby states such as Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states formed another. Christians, who had lived in relative stability in both Syria and Iraq, were suddenly pawns in the sectarian violence. Thousands have fled the region, and the ancient Christian communities of Iraq and Syria are being rapidly depopulated. Other religious minorities have also suffered persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists. There are reported to be more than a million refugees of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in Jordan alone.

The brutal civil war in Syria, which has no good side and no easy resolution, has given new life to radical Muslim insurgents. The most deadly group is known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an ideologically fueled movement dedicated to the creation of an Islamic “caliphate,” harshly ruled by Islamic law and intolerant to the extreme of any religious minorities or those judged to be insufficiently Islamic. Like other radicals, ISIS uses suicide as a weapon, but also kills its foes savagely and without remorse. Christians particularly have been targeted.

In the increasing brutality of Middle Eastern politics, Americans can be forgiven for wanting to opt out of this chaos. Americans have little appetite for re-entering the conflict in Iraq or in propping up the sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki, even though an Islamist victory could provide radicals with the safe haven they once had in Afghanistan. But U.S. Rep. Pelosi is wrong: We do bear responsibility in part for this upheaval. And we must not forget the victims of this extremism, particularly our fellow Christians.

Pope Francis spoke frankly on this issue June 15, when he invited Catholics to “unite yourselves with my prayer for the dear Iraqi nation, especially for the victims and for those who most suffer the consequences of the growing violence, in particular the many persons, among whom are so many Christians, who have had to leave their homes.”

We encourage U.S. bishops to lead our community in a national prayer for reconciliation and religious freedom in the region. We also encourage individual Catholics to provide aid for their suffering brothers and sisters through these worthy organizations: The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services and the Pontifical Mission Societies.

And as the U.S. prepares to leave Afghanistan, we can only pray that a similar extremist rebound does not take place there after so many years of war and so much shed blood.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor