Cardinal McCarrick: No strikes in Syria; don’t repeat mistakes of Iraq

By Dale Gavlak
Catholic News Service

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, then archbishop of Washington, walks between Imam Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini, right, of the Islamic Center of America, and Israeli Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen during an international peace conference at Georgetown University in Washington in this 2006 file photo. Cardinal McCarrick’s interest in Islam, the Middle East and relations between Christians and Muslims goes back many years. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said he opposed U.S. military intervention in Syria, adding that he was “not in favor of going to war to make peace.”

“We made the mistake in Iraq. I hope we don’t make the mistake again in Syria,” he told Catholic News Service Sept. 5 after visiting some of the nearly half-million refugees who had fled to Jordan, Syria’s southern neighbor.

When asked what was worst, either allow Syria to use chemical weapons and do nothing or go in with limited military strikes, he quickly responded: “Neither is the proper answer.” Cardinal McCarrick said he agreed with Pope Francis that diplomacy is the only way out of Syria’s two-and-a-half-year war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives and created 2 million refugees. The cardinal said financial and other pressures could be brought to bear on the conflicting parties rather than resorting to U.S. military might.

“We haven’t really exhausted all the opportunities. We have to get them to the table,” he said. “We should do this. I feel very strongly about this.”

Cardinal McCarrick participated in a high-level meeting of Christian and Muslim leaders in the Jordanian capital earlier in the week. Participants addressed challenges facing Arab Christians, notably violence against their communities, which is forcing some to flee their countries.

He also visited Syrian and Iraqi refugees who have fled the Syrian civil war. A number of the Iraqi refugees he met have been displaced and traumatized for a second time: They initially sought shelter in Syria following the 2003 U.S.-led war that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The cardinal told of a young Iraqi Christian woman displaced for a second time; she was a victim of rape as a weapon of war. He said he sought to give Christ’s healing touch to her soul as she tries to regain her life in Jordan.

Meeting the refugees earlier that day, he said, was a “deja vu” experience for him.

“I remember having been here some years ago when the Iraqis were coming in and hearing stories of persecution, difficulties and real discrimination,” he said.

During a previous visit, he met an Iraqi father who said that he and his young sons narrowly escaped the 2010 militant attack on Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic cathedral. The al-Qaida-linked assault left at least 58 people dead, including two priests, after more than 100 parishioners were taken hostage.

But the family knew they had to leave Iraq for good after they were threatened by other extremists with the choice of either conversion to Islam or death.

These memories stirred as he listened to the Syrian refugees’ horror stories Sept. 5.

“As a priest they would share their stories with me. I had the deep concern that these people are really going through a post-traumatic syndrome experience,” he said.

The cardinal said he empathized with U.S. President Barack Obama over the tough decision about whether to attack the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The president and some members of the U.S. Congress argue that Assad must be punished for the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians outside of Damascus in August.

“I pity the president. What a terrible decision he has to make,” Cardinal McCarrick said. But he said he believes there is no there is no such thing as a limited military operation and understands that even some of Washington’s top military experts believe the same.

Cardinal McCarrick serves on the board of the Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency. CRS partners with Caritas, a global Catholic charity, in Jordan and elsewhere in the region to aid refugees. The cardinal has made numerous visits to Jordan to visit those displaced by the region’s wars.

Jordan is heaving under the weight of refugees from neighboring countries. It shelters more than half a million Syrian refugees. A similar number of Iraqis are still present a decade after the war that ousted Saddam Hussein. Palestinian refugees from wars in 1967 and 1973 and their descendants make up about half of Jordan’s 6.5 million population.