Why is France calling a meeting of the Security Council on Christians in the Middle East?
Christians are being eradicated from the Middle East. Given the extreme gravity of the situation, we wish to make a strong gesture. We currently hold the presidency of the Security Council and have decided to convene a meeting on this issue. This is a first. I hope the Charter of Action we intend to propose will make a useful contribution.
Do you see your initiative as part of the tradition of France as the protector of Christians in the Middle East, which dates back to St Louis (13th century King Louis IX of France)?
Absolutely. That tradition is part of our history, our identity, and the history and identity of the Middle East.
Régis Debray (French writer and academic) has described the Middle Eastern Christians as "too Christian to interest the left and too foreign to interest the right". Has France – and the French left in particular – been slow to respond to the plight of Christians in the region?
As I said, the protection of Christians in the Middle East is part of France’s history, which bridges the political divide. It is my intention for us to remain faithful to that tradition. By convening the Security Council and calling on the international community to act, France is defending a just cause.
What will you be proposing today?
It will be along the lines of a charter, comprising four aspects. The Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, is paying close attention to this matter. The first aspect is humanitarian and covers not only displaced persons and refugees but also their return. To enable those who have fled to return – and this is the second aspect of our proposal – the coalition, Iraqi forces and others must be able to ensure the safety of the persecuted minorities.
And the last two aspects?
There is a political aspect, of course. The governments of Iraq and in Syria must give each of the communities that make up their nations due recognition. That is our aim in Iraq, where the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, must make a decisive break from the partiality of his predecessor by implementing genuinely inclusive actions. The last aspect is the fight against impunity: we want the Security Council to refer the crimes that have been committed to the ICC.
You have mainly spoken about Iraq. What about Syria?
We sometimes hear of Syria that "Daesh is even worse than Assad, so we must support Assad to get rid of Daesh". In fact, Daesh and Assad are two sides of the same coin. As much as we favour a political solution in Syria that involves elements of the regime and the opposition – and we are working towards this – we think that supporting Assad as Syria’s future would be both a moral and a practical mistake, because it would drive everyone he has persecuted into the arms of Daesh.
Isn’t the United States changing its position on Assad?
The Secretary of State, John Kerry, has assured me that this is not the case. Let us not forget that the United Nations Secretary-General considers Assad to be guilty of crimes against humanity, and that Assad repressed the first peaceful demonstrations of his people with such brutality that he created the conditions for a war in Syria, which has since claimed 220,000 lives. There is also documented torture by his regime. And chemical weapons did not fall out of the sky spontaneously. Unfortunately, the list of his crimes does not end there.
You envisage a return of the Christians, but at the same time France’s Minister of the Interior, Bernard Cazeneuve, has granted 1,500 visas to Middle Eastern Christians. Isn’t there a contradiction here?
No. We have a duty to offer refuge, within our means, to those who have ties to France and who wish to leave the Middle East because they have suffered intolerably and have no other option. For some it will be very difficult to go back. But a majority want to return home or will want to in the future. There are also those who want to stay. We must help them.
Daesh professes a Wahhabi strain of Islam. How can France help Christians in the Middle East when it is an ally of Saudi Arabia, which has propagated Wahhabism around the world?
I am not going to engage in a theological debate. What I do know is that the Saudis are wholeheartedly committed to fighting Daesh. The practical conclusion I draw from this is that the battle against Daesh must also be led by Muslim authorities, both civil and religious.
Shouldn’t you demand more clarity from your Wahhabi partners?
Obviously, we must be clear on financing, networks and support. Our common enemy is Daesh, an ultra-sectarian group that wants to impose its way of life and thinking through terror.
Can Iran play a role in stabilising the region?
We are involved in nuclear talks with Iran. Iran is of course entitled to civilian nuclear power. But allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons would open the gates to nuclear proliferation in the region, which would be extremely dangerous. Iran is already a key player in the region: in Lebanon through Hezbollah, in Syria by providing military support, in Iraq, and now in Yemen. We want this great country to be a power for peace. But it must renounce nuclear weapons, as it says it is willing to do.
Should France commit ground troops?
The past decades have shown us that military solutions imposed from the outside do not work. Moreover, France cannot intervene everywhere; that is not our policy. Our constant objective is security and peace.
To what do you attribute the absence of the European Union from this issue?
In diplomatic language, I would say that the European Union has room to improve on this issue. In plainer language, sometimes the Union is just too timid. Is France isolated? I think we are actually showing the way.
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