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Church people comment on Australia’s military involvement in Iraq

Volunteer Iraqi Shiite militia

Military stand: Volunteer Iraqi Shiite militia members near Hibhib stand guard against Islamic State militants on August 11.
Photo: CNS/EPA

By Paul Dobbyn

BRISBANE archdiocese’s Deacon Gary Stone is watching Australia’s deepening military involvement in northern Iraq with concern and frustration yet he knows the lives of innocent people must be protected.

As an infantry lieutenant colonel, he commanded an Australian Army peacekeeping contingent on the Iran-Iraq border in 1989-90.

In 2003, Deacon Stone warned in a story in The Catholic Leader, re-published around the world, of the consequences of the United States-led invasion of Iraq, then under the leadership of Saddam Hussein.

“At the time, I predicted that such a Western invasion would end tragically and my worst fears have now been realised,” he said.

“However, in the current situation I believe that Australia should get involved in supporting the people of northern Iraq.”

Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission executive officer Peter Arndt has cautioned against Australia rushing to join the conflict.

“Despite our natural urge to come to the aid of people in trouble, we should show caution in the way we respond,” he said.

“After all, the arms that the US supplied to the Iraqi Army are now in the hands of IS (Islamic State) fighters.

“What may appear good at the time may turn out to be a negative subsequently.

“Nevertheless, whole groups of people are being singled out for attack by IS and this may demand military action if all other means to prevent the violence and brutality are unavailable or ineffective.”

Deacon Stone described the situation in northern Iraq as “a crisis of awful proportions”.

“In many cases these people have no shelter; they are just living under trees and many have no food or water,” he said.

“Unfortunately Iraqi military forces have collapsed and are unable to protect these people.”

On August 8, the Islamic State seized the city of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, forcing thousands of Christians to flee, convert, pay a fine, or be murdered “by the sword”, according to reports.

Deacon Stone, who served in the Australian Army for more than 44 years first as an infantry officer then as a chaplain, made the comments after Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Australian military aircraft would be taking arms and munitions into Kurdish parts of Iraq.

Making the announcement on August 31, Mr Abbott and the Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, confirmed Australia would deliver the material as part of a US-led effort to bolster the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who are battling Islamic State fighters.

Deacon Stone said for Australia not to act in this situation would be morally wrong.

“A just response is needed to protect these people – it’s part of being good world citizens,” he said.

Pope Francis also asked all Catholic parishes and communities to offer special prayers for ancient Christian communities in Iraq and other minorities experiencing religious persecution.

A novena at St Joseph’s Church, Bracken Ridge, started on September 6.

The prayers will culminate on September 14, the Feast Day of the Exaltation of the Cross, a significant feast for the Church in the Middle East.

Mr Arndt said “as Catholics, we can certainly do as the Pope and Australia’s bishops have encouraged us to do which is to pray for the protection and safety of the people of Iraq”.

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