The American drone strike that killed an Iranian general on January 3 prompted calls for peace from Catholic leaders in the US, and a debate about the ethics of using drones in warfare.
“We must pray urgently that our world’s leaders will pursue dialogue and seek peace,” said Archbishop José Gómez, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops last week, according to the Catholic News Agency (CNA). “Please join me in asking our Blessed Mother Mary, the Queen of Peace, to intercede, that Jesus Christ might strengthen the peacemakers, comfort the suffering, and protect the innocent and all those in harm’s way, especially the men and women in our military and diplomatic service.”
Tensions between the US and Iran reached boiling point after the Trump administration ordered a strike on Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, the section of the country’s military that manages proxy militias and terrorist organisations outside Iran. The US attributed a significant number of American personnel deaths in Iraq to Soleimani.
The strike, which occurred as Soleimani left Baghdad’s international airport, also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy head of predominantly Shia Muslim militia forces in Iraq that are backed by Iran.
A week earlier, one of those militias had killed an American contractor and wounded four soldiers in a rocket attack in northern Iraq. The US retaliated, killing dozens of militia fighters. This led to supporters of the militias surrounding the American embassy in Baghdad, damaging some buildings.
The US government believed that Soleimani was involved in both the rocket attack and embassy incident, and also had reason to think he was plotting attacks against American diplomats and soldiers in the Middle East.
A couple of days after Soleimani’s death, Pope Francis urged peace during an Angelus address. “I call on all parties to keep the flame of dialogue and self-control burning, and to ward off any shadow of enmity,” the Pope said, according to Crux.
Meanwhile, an Iraqi archbishop told the Catholic News Service that his fellow countrymen feared a war between the US and Iran was about to be waged on their soil.
“We prayed during the days of Christmas for peace on earth, and the timing of this revenge from America creates in us a big anxiety about what will happen,” said Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Yousif Thomas Mirkis.
The archbishop also said that the strike could divide the population and stir sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
US Catholic theologians and activists weighed the morality of the drone strike on Soleimani, and the use of drones in general.
Johnny Zokovitch, executive director of Pax Christi USA, a Catholic peace movement, argued that drone strikes violate Church teaching as they offer “no accountability” and “no sense of responsibility”, according to the National Catholic Reporter. He added that the decision to kill Soleimani “further contributes to the cycle of revenge, and innocent men, women and children will suffer”.
Sister Patricia McDermott, president of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, called the strike “reckless”, according to America magazine. She urged the US government “to reject militarism and instead to engage in the hard work of diplomacy”.
But Kevin Miller, a professor of moral theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, said that Catholic teaching does not necessarily oppose targeted strikes against military leaders. But he also said it was important for government officials to consider the consequences.
Should the attack cause an escalation in Iran’s Middle East proxy wars, “even if it maybe for the moment puts an end to attempted attacks on our embassy … I don’t see how that makes the situation, on balance, better rather than worse,” Miller told CNA.
For now, it appears that Iran and the US have pulled back from the brink.
In response to Soleimani’s killing, Iran launched missile attacks on US military bases in Iraq, but there were no American casualties and damage was limited.
The day after the attacks, President Trump said Iran seemed “to be standing down”, calling it “a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world”. Trump also announced that the US would impose additional economic sanctions on Iran, but would not take escalatory military action.
The Trump administration’s decision to take out Soleimani may serve to deter some Iranian actions in the Middle East, but it is highly likely that Iran will continue to pursue its interests in the region through proxy groups. It also remains to be seen whether the US’s willingness to employ military force and strengthened sanctions will bring Iran back to the table for new negotiations regarding its nuclear programme.
For now, there is no war. But neither is there peace.