Amid the protracted conflict in Syria now entering its fifth year and the uprooting of Christians by the Islamic State in Mosul and the Ninevah Plain in Iraq, the very existence of Syriac Catholics in the region is at stake.
Ignatius Youssef III Younan, patriarch of Antioch for the Syriac Catholic Church, regularly visits his beleaguered faithful in Syria and Iraq to offer them support and to share in their suffering. They pose to him the same questions that overshadow their daily lives: “What is our future here?”
Patriarch Younan spoke with the Register March 25 at the patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon.
As a native of Hassakeh, Syria, how do you view the situation there?
Based on my contacts with Archbishop Behnan Hindo of the Syriac Catholic Church and Bishop Aprem Nathanael of the Assyrian Church of the East, who are the only heads of Churches remaining in Hassakeh, the situation over there is still very tense. People are in disarray and filled with fear.
The invasion by the Islamic State and its supporters on some 30 Christian villages on the Khabur River Feb. 23 resulted in the killing of more than two dozen people, the kidnapping of around 300 and the uprooting of around 2,500 people. The survivors had nowhere to go other than to Hassakeh, the capital of the province, where they obtained refuge in church halls and some abandoned buildings.
In Hassakeh, people manage to survive because of the presence of the Syrian National Army that ensures security, along with the Kurdish Protection Army and some Christian defense groups, which are monitoring and defending the city. Because of the ongoing tension, the region is besieged by terrorists. It happens that sometimes those entities clash among themselves, as occurred a few weeks ago. But what is most feared are the booby-trapped explosives that usually hit civilians and cause a lot of destruction, as well as instilling more fear.
What is your opinion regarding the military coalition intervention?
I am not a military expert, but I doubt very much that there is an honest will to defeat Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State), especially when we hear from some officials in the West, either the Americans, Europeans or Australians, that the battle against Daesh will take quite a while — years. For us Christians, it is very lethal, because time doesn’t work for us. We can’t convince our communities to stay in their country and to persevere. Of course, they see that there’s a kind of combined effort by the Western countries to let Syrians and Iraqis fight against Daesh, but it’s not enough.
What is your assessment of the escalating crisis in Syria?
We are very saddened by what is happening to Syria. It’s over four years now of violent, lethal conflict, and we still have Westerners calling for the fall of what they call the Syrian regime. It is a legitimate government still recognized by the U.N. It has its errors, its weaknesses, its failures. But that doesn’t mean that Westerners have the right to keep hammering the government, aiming for it to fall. If this Syrian government falls, it will be a kind of hecatomb — that means a horrible catastrophe — on the whole region. And it will primarily hit minorities, especially the Christian communities, who are the most vulnerable in this ongoing conflict.
The Western countries keep formatting the conflict. That means they ship arms and people from all around the world to side with the so-called moderate opposition. There is no moderate opposition in Syria. This is a lie. They have to stop arming terrorists. Instead, help the local governments to solve their problems.
If the Western countries really want a peaceful solution to the crisis, they should have implemented the human rights recognized by the United Nations. They should have recognized or imposed separation between religion and state. This fighting — in Iraq, in Syria and other countries in the Middle East — we know it is mostly confessional. Why? Because the Muslim majority does not want to separate religion from the public life, and that doesn’t inspire trust and safety to the minorities. Therefore, we have this situation of ongoing violent conflict.
You have recently returned from a five-day visit to Syria, including Homs, Hama and Nabek. How was the morale of the people?
They are enduring a lot of suffering and insecurity regarding the ongoing crisis and violent events in Syria for over four years now. Most of the towns I visited were already hit by shelling, bombings. Homs is already almost 80% destroyed. I visited 12 parishes in the Nabek area. I prayed with them, listened to their concerns. They ask: “What is our future here? How do we convince our youth to stay in their country? How can we rebuild our houses, get our jobs back?”
They live a life of insecurity. My visit was a new breath for them. Of course, words are not enough. But I think it was good that I was among them, sharing in some of their suffering. Each parish also got a donation from the patriarchate. It was well appreciated.
We also met with officials, the governors of Homs, of Hama, and we exchanged thoughts about the situation of the citizens, especially our Christian communities. They [the officials] are all open to do what they can, but they say it’s difficult. For instance, the electrical power is down at least 15 hours a day because there is not enough gas for generators. Or there are problems with the water supply. They are experiencing terribly harsh times.
You have also visited the Ankawa region in Iraq and sat with refugees in their tents. As their shepherd, it must be a very heavy burden for you. Can you try to put that into words?
We still suffer, and we still share in the suffering of our people. We have been hit so violently by this kind of eradication of our people, and we still suffer from that uprooting. That was last June in Mosul and two months later in August, in the Plain of Nineveh (when the Islamic State invaded). That area is now empty of all its Christians. And recently we heard about the destruction of our monastery of Mar Behnam near Mosul, which dates back to the fourth century.
According to the last update from the bishop of Mosul, Boutros Moshe, who is also displaced, we have over 6,400 displaced Syriac-Catholic families in the Kurdistan region (in Iraq). I’ve met with them at least five times since the tragedy began last summer. They are facing a very, very bad time because they don’t know what to do. Those who can obtain refugee visas rush to come to Lebanon, to Jordan, to Turkey — just to flee. We try to help them as best we can. We have Catholic organizations sharing in that effort, but it doesn’t really answer their very deep question: “Could we go back to our homes?” How can we answer their questions? We have no answers. As long as this tragedy continues, we don’t have the capacity, the ability to respond to them.
Do you think there’s a chance Mosul will be liberated?
At what price? It is the second-largest city in Iraq, with a huge number of civilians, so how is it possible to liberate the city or chase out Daesh forces? There will be a lot of casualties, and it would take a long time.
In my opinion, in Iraq as well as in Syria, one of the reasons the violence has continued for so long is because civilians are used as human shields. There are some places where there is fighting between the Syrian army and the rebels. But in most cases, the Syrian army can’t liberate faster the areas controlled by the so-called opposition — for instance in the Aleppo area and in central Syria, like the countryside of Hama or Idlib — because there are many civilians living in those regions. Even the United Nations’ agencies admit there are about at least half a million civilians who lack almost everything in the so-called conflict regions. That’s because they are stuck between the Syrian army and the rebels.
What can Christians in the West do to help?
Christians are waking up, thanks be to God. They have shown solidarity and compassion with their brothers and sisters of Syria and Iraq who are enduring this tragedy.
They can, of course, offer their prayers and their sacrifices to the Lord, the Prince of Peace, to grant his peace to the whole region. This is the first thing we ask them to do: praying, offering help and sharing in the suffering of the Lord, so that their brethren can get along with this huge testing of their lives in this very, very harsh suffering, for their tragic situation where they are.
Secondly, in my opinion, the silent majority in the West — especially Christians and most particularly Catholics — have to know that it’s time to get up and ask their politicians: What are they doing in the Middle East: forgetting, neglecting, abandoning vulnerable minorities, especially Christians, to a very, very dangerous situation, in which they are forced either to convert to Islam or to leave the lands of their ancestors?
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.