Syria is in the throes of an eight-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. But does the so-called “Arab Spring” bode well for Christians in the Middle East?
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of Antioch is not so sure. He has been deeply concerned by the uprising and increasing violence in Syria.
A native of Hassakeh, Syria, Patriarch Younan is the shepherd of approximately 150,000 Syriac Catholics worldwide, with about 30,000 to 40,000 in Syria, about 50,000 in Iraq and some 25,000 in the United States and Canada.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the first bishop of the newborn diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada, based in New Jersey. Younan had established the diocese soon after his arrival to the U.S. in 1986, under the guidance and assistance of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was archbishop of Newark at that time.
He was elected by the Syriac Catholic Synod held in Rome on January 20, 2009, as patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch. Along with Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches, Patriarch Younan served as a co-president of the October 2010 Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in the Vatican.
He spoke with Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad at the patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon, about the unsettling reality of the situation in Syria.
What is your assessment of the situation in Syria?
The problem we are facing now — and many of us Church leaders had predicted this — is that it’s becoming a confessional (religious) struggle. This is the reality.
We are not supporting any regime. However, we call for a real dialogue.
Syria needs a lot of reforms. It needs a multiparty system of government and freedom of speech. But those reforms have to be accomplished through dialogue. We in the Church are all for reforms, but those reforms have to be executed or accomplished through dialogue and peaceful means.
If the aim is to change the political system, it’s got to take some time, and since the people want that change for the good of their country, they have to be kind of patient and find a way to make those needed reforms.
We need a kind of neutral third party that could unite those who are in conflict (with each other). That means the Syrian government and the opposition. From what we understand of the claims of the opposition (in Syria), they just want to crash the system of the government. But pushing just to topple the government will have very bad consequences.
Isn’t this the hoped-for outcome of the “Arab Spring” — for a regime to fall?
We fear that the kind of pressure put on just requiring the fall of the government in Syria will have disastrous consequences, even worse than in Iraq. And this chaos, surely — with no means to implement security — will lead to civil war.
This civil war doesn’t mean political parties that struggle to control the power. It will be confessional (religious), and war in the name of God is far worse than a political struggle. And this is what we fear.
The two factions in the population, Sunni and Alawite, are not going to accept each other and live along with each other while there is a profound reciprocal hatred. Should we not remind ourselves of the horrible confessional wars back in the European history? Christians are stuck between both communities (Sunni and Alawite) because we don’t have the desire or the ambition to control the government or to topple it, and we don’t stand with any confession. Therefore, the Christians are the most vulnerable.
What should the international community be doing?
Most of us think that the Western countries are following an opportunism that is not for the good — neither for the peoples living in the Middle East nor for Islam nor for the whole civil world — that means the community of nations.
What the West likes to understand of the so-called Arab Spring, is really kind of naive. Most of the regimes in this region, aside from Lebanon, are not democratic. Most of them are not civil-supporting regimes, which means they deny religious freedom to those who are not Muslims.
They (the Western world) believe in democracy and civil rights. But they are not pushing for true democratic reforms in this region. Instead, they just want to change political systems which they think are dictatorial systems into an unknown system where the very, very respect of civil rights is absent. By civil rights we mean not only the freedom of speech and civil rights of all citizens, but civil rights to implement the religious freedom to all. That means to implement a civil society that respects the charter of human rights as already stipulated by the U.N. in 1948 (the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”).
We expect from the free world to defend the principles of liberty and true democracy for all, and not just to promote that the majority represented in a country should assume power. This is unfair to those minorities who are the most vulnerable, like Christians, who have been living in those countries for a long time, before Islam.
Then why do Christians keep emigrating from these countries? It is because there is no political system that respects their religious identity.
Therefore, the international community should really re-examine their positions. Because even if now they are defending what they call the civil rights of those people opposing the dictatorial regimes, a time will come when they will be — I’m talking about the Western nations — rejected by those whom they supported. This could lead to an increase in terrorism.
The Western nations must have not only their proper interests in mind, because we know what the Middle East represents in the economical realm: oil. The international community needs to look at the people in the Middle East as human beings who need fair development in the social, economical and political fields. It seems that economic opportunism and an aim to divide the Middle East keeps interfering in the life of this region.
As the shepherds of Christians, our duty is to speak out. Although we don’t mingle in politics, we already have the experience of our multi-sect history, from living in this region and witnessing the very horrible reality of Iraq. It is our duty to speak. The Church has always defended the civil rights of all human beings, whatever their race, ethnicity or religion.
Surely, it’s not easy to foresee the future. We pray and hope for a more peaceful and reasonable solution in Syria, as well as in other Middle Eastern countries like Iraq and Egypt.
Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.