On the flight back from Korea in mid-August, Pope Francis drew the media’s attention to the level of cruelty in today’s world and the widespread use of torture. He urged reporters to reflect on this reality, which “should frighten us,” obviously wanting them to play their part in ending it.
Francis is particularly sensitive to this upsurge in cruelty and torture. He knows from personal experience what it entails. He was in Jerusalem when the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973 and lived through the “dirty war” and the Malvinas/Falklands war under Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-83). As pope he is closely monitoring the escalating contemporary barbarities and is profoundly disturbed by them and by the widespread “culture of indifference” and the unwillingness of governments to act decisively to prevent or stop them—except, of course, when their national interests are at stake.
As Francis spoke with reporters on Aug. 18, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza was still raging, while violence and terror were being visited on ethnic and religious minorities (including Christian and Yazidi) in northern Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, forcing more than 830,000 people to abandon their homes or face death unless they converted to Islam. Libya was in turmoil, and conflict rocked South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, the Ukraine and other places.
“Today we are in a world at war, everywhere. We’re in the Third World War, but bit by bit,” he stated. “It’s a world at war in which these cruelties are done,” he said referring to the persecution of minorities, ethnic cleansing, massacres, kidnapping, rape and other kinds of violence and destruction that are war’s companions.
Seeking to awaken the consciences of people worldwide from the slumber of indifference into which so many believers and people of good-will have fallen, Francis highlighted the cruelty to children.
“Today children do not count,” he stated. Unlike conventional war, “today a bomb is sent and it kills the innocent, the guilty, children, women, it kills everybody,” he said. His words reflected the fact that in today’s conflicts humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is meant to protect the civilian population in times of conflict and occupation, seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Impunity reigns.
As he spoke, Israel’s bombing in Gaza was killing an average of 10 children and minors daily. Countless children were being killed in Iraq, with some dying from hunger and thirst as they fled ISIS terror. Many too were being killed in Syria, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and the Ukraine. On July 27 he denounced the fact that children were “being killed, mutilated, injured, orphaned” and appealed for an end to the fighting in the Middle East and the Ukraine.
On the plane Francis told reporters, “We must stop and think a little about the level of cruelty at which we have arrived. The level of cruelty of humanity at this moment should frighten us a little.”
He also drew attention to the widespread use of torture, which has become an “ordinary way of behaving” by intelligence and law enforcement officials. He was categorical in condemning it: “Torture is a sin against humanity; it is a crime against humanity. And I tell Catholics that to torture a person is a mortal sin.”
The day after Francis spoke, the world was rudely awakened to the cruelty to which he was referring when ISIS beheaded the American journalist James Foley. In the same month of August, Saudi Arabia, America’s ally, which reportedly funds many fundamentalist Islamic groups, publicly beheaded 22 people. Few noticed.
Francis wants to stop this downward spiral of inhumanity. He believes the media can play an important role here. They can awaken consciences to this terrible reality by unmasking the political, economic and financial interests—the actors and political supporters, including states, the manipulators of religion, the suppliers of arms and the traders in the underground oil and mineral markets—that are behind these conflicts or benefit from them. The media can also help stop such barbarity by demanding respect for humanitarian and international law in conflict situations, by fostering a climate of solidarity and by promoting a culture of encounter and peace. But will they do so?