Pope Francis had some harsh words for religious extremists this weekend, voicing his strongest condemnation yet for those who use religion to justify violence.
Speaking on Sunday to an audience that included the President, governmental authorities, and diplomatic corps of Albania, where he is spending a one-day apostolic visit, the first Argentinean pope directly addressed the growing issue of religious violence. Francis first praised the “climate of respect” in Albania — which is a Muslim-majority country — between Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, saying the culture of tolerance was a “precious gift.” He then expressed firm criticism for those who cite faith as grounds for killing others.
“Let no one consider themselves to be the ‘armor’ of God while planning and carrying out acts of violence and oppression!” the pope said. “May no one use religion as a pretext for actions against human dignity and against the fundamental rights of every man and woman, above all, the right to life and the right of everyone to religious freedom!”
The comments appear to be an indirect reference to the actions of groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the militant organization that has made international headlines for committing mass killings and beheadings while claiming to be Islamic. Francis has expressed ambivalence about how the global community should respond to the threat of ISIS, condoning some form of action to halt their advance across the Middle East but stopping just short of promoting violent military intervention.
Francis has been a staunch opponent of violence since ascending to the papacy, repeatedly citing his Catholic faith while insisting that world leaders embrace peace. He invited heads of state from both Israel and Palestine to the Vatican earlier this year to participate in a “prayer summit” for peace, and when the United States considered using airstrikes in Syria last September, Francis called on Catholics to protest by fasting and declared, “War begets war, violence begets violence.” He has also spoken at length about the horrors of war during a sermon in July that may have challenged the Catholic church’s own concept of “Just War Doctrine,” saying, “Brothers and sisters, never war, never war! Everything is lost with war, nothing is lost with peace. Never more war.”