What do the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East, many of them threatened with extinction in lands where they have survived since the dawn of their faith's existence, most need from their co-religionists in the West? Some want more military support, but others take a different view. That difference emerged during a visit to London by Archbishop Bashar Warda, the top Catholic cleric in Erbil, the only Iraqi city where Christians live in significant numbers.
At a meeting yesterday in the House of Lords, co-organised by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the archbishop reminded people of the hard realities facing his flock. As of a result of last year's onslaught by Islamic State, perhaps 400,000 people fled their homes in Mosul and the neighbouring Nineveh Plain and many sought refuge in the adjacent area controlled by the Kurdish regional government. The displaced include Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities. Of the 300,000 or so Christians who remain in Iraq (down from 1.4m a couple of decades ago), the great majority now live in Kurdistan, of which Erbil is the capital.
Iraqi Christians are practical, energetic sorts, the archbishop told his British hosts, and they are not sitting around bemoaning their fate. Huge efforts are being made to get the displaced families, who are now holed up in tents, portakabins and half-built shopping centres, into better accommodation where they can become economically active and their children can pursue studies. The archbishop is working hard to start, by next autumn, a new university which will be Catholic in inspiration but open to all faiths.
He also spoke bluntly about what his flock hoped for: "military action is needed", he said, and it had to be more draconian than the internationally organised air strikes which have apparently arrested the advance of Islamic State but have failed to dislodge it from newly-won lands. "Our people were hoping their liberation would start soon, but [the time] is getting longer, and many have left the country," the visiting cleric pointedly added. And military support would to have to come from outside Iraq because neither the central Iraqi government nor the Kurdish forces seemed strong enough to roll back IS.
But a fellow Arab Christian politely objected. The Reverend Nadim Nassar, a Syrian Anglican from Lattakia, said Western military intervention wasn't the right way to defeat IS. Instead, Middle Eastern Christians should be pressing Western governments to probe and denounce the ways in which IS was being financed. That should not be impossible, he reckoned. "How can IS export oil from the region under its control? We have satellites hovering over the earth, yet everyone is blind." Western governments should be urged to tell the truth about IS even if that would cause embarrassment to highly-placed friends. "By calling for more [military] boots on the ground, we are avoiding this major question," said Mr Nassar, who runs a Christian NGO called the Awareness Foundation which encourages inter-faith debate.
Whether or not it would be desirable for Western states to put lots of boots on the ground in support of Iraq's minorities, it seems fairly unlikely. Voters have little appetite for such intervention. Investigating and choking the financial flows to IS might be diplomatically difficult, but it's surely worth a try.