ROME — Imagine a five-star general, under assault, with no weapons of defense — except faith.
Think of an Old Testament prophet living today, describing the evil destroying his community — but few listen.
That general or prophet is the fierce and noble leader of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch, Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan, age 71, whose Church comprises some 200,000 souls worldwide.
Patriarch Youssef sat down with the Register in Rome to provide an update and overview of the situation facing Syriac Catholics in their main homelands of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. (The Catholic bishop of Antioch traditionally carries the title “patriarch” — one of five patriarchs of Antioch, three Catholic and two Orthodox.)
His cri de coeur is unnerving.
Conditions for Syriac Catholics still living in Iraq and Syria has gone “from bad to worse” in the last year, according to the patriach.
Good news for the Church this year came when a kidnapped priest escaped the Islamic State (IS) after five months of captivity: The related bad news was IS’ destruction of the 1,500-plus-year-old monastery where he was abbot.
A July 3 truck bombing in Baghdad killed more than 230 people, including Catholic faithful — the most deadly attack in the city in several years.
It occurred 400 meters (1,312 feet) from the Syriac-Catholic cathedral, still mourning an atrocious massacre six years ago: Masked invaders assaulted the cathedral during Sunday Mass and viciously murdered a priest on the altar, along with another priest and 46 others, during a three-hour siege.
Despite obvious awareness of the hatred toward Christians surging through the Muslim community then, the United States appeared to be taken by surprise at the sudden emergence of IS two years ago.
In the summer of 2014, some 150,000 believers were forced to flee from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, where the largest concentration of Iraqi Christians lived. About 50,000 Syriac Catholics lived in the city of Mosul alone.
“They are all gone, uprooted from their ancestral lands, by the Daesh invasion,” said the patriarch solemnly, shaking his head. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, with a derogatory connotation of “lacking dignity.”
Displaced Christians found refuge in Kurdistan (a region in northern Iraq), in Jordan and in Lebanon. Most had only a few hours of warning, escaping with few possessions.
The patriarch regularly visits his flock in refugee camps and provisional apartments in places such as Beirut and Amman, where Catholic humanitarian programs such as Caritas have been helpful: “They have been waiting to go back [to their homes], but it seems that it’s not going to be soon,” he said. “Their morale is way down.”
Most have given up hope for normalcy and are trying to get visas to the U.S., Europe or Australia.
Meanwhile, Christian communities in Syria have also been devastated, despite warnings from local leaders, including the patriarch, that the country’s rich diversity of ethnic and religious groups — and the complex balance of power relations between them — could easily be disturbed if outsiders meddled.
According to the patriarch, fundamental errors in Syria came from Western politicians insisting that democracy can be exported, when it can’t; from Western media describing an “Arab Spring” style opposition movement and the existence of moderate rebels, who aren’t viable (if they exist); and from an intentional misunderstanding of political Islam and its objectives.
“In Syria, the situation was much more complex than in Tunisia or Egypt or Libya,” he said, adding that the media turned a war “inflicted on Syria” into an “Arab Spring” fantasy, starting in March 2011.
“Even Catholic leaders [in the United States and Western Europe], lured by the media and your hypocritical politicians, would tell us [Christian leaders in Syria]: ‘The Syrian regime has to go,’ assuming it was a matter of months,” which was inappropriate because “you have no right to interfere in an independent country that is still recognized by the U.N.,” said the patriarch.
“Western politicians said, ‘We have to export democracy,’ but what kind of democracy do you export to a country that has never known the separation of religion and state? If you don’t have that separation, you will have no democracy, and you will end up denying the rights of non-Muslims. What kind of democracy is that?” asked the patriarch.
“American, French, English, European Union politicians — they knew that, and now they harvest what they have sowed,” he said.
It’s more accurate to look at Syria from the perspective of the struggle throughout the Middle East between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, suggested the patriarch.
“One of the most moderate, laicized countries in the region, Syria, has been ravished by one of the most sectarian wars,” he summarized.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a branch of Shia Muslim concentrated in Syria, where Sunnis are the majority.
By advocating the removal of Assad, the Obama administration aligned itself with “rich countries like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, fomenting violence and hatred,” said the patriarch.
Behind much of the region’s conflict are “the Wahabbism of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other [Persian] Gulf states,” whose “best allies” are Western countries, he said.
Wahabbism is radical Sunni Islam, a movement that emerged in the 18th century thought and preaching of Muhammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula. It forms the religious basis for the Islamic State.
He says Saudi Arabia and its Western allies, especially the U.S., together decided “the Syrian country, ruled by a kind of socialist party, where they were fighting against illiteracy, where you had medical care for all, a peaceful country, where you could go wherever you wanted to go, 24 hours a day without any problem — they find it has a dictatorship they have to knock down,” intoned the patriarch.
The patriarch thinks “political correctness” often prevents people in the West from perceiving dangerous phenomena related to Islam.
As the interview took place, the bodies of nine Italians killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, by Muslim terrorists were arriving in Rome, the patriarch pointed out. Why did this happen?
“Go to the depth of the problem: It is not a question of poverty,” the patriarch observed. “Those five criminals were of good families. They were also students. It’s not a question of politics: The foreigners were apolitical; they helped the textile industry in Bangladesh.”
“It is a matter of Islam, radical Islam, and most of the Sunni Muslims are radical. Why? Because they take their Quran literally. In the Quran you have verses that promote tolerance toward non-Muslims, the people of the book, like us [Christians], like Jews, and you have verses that are very intolerant, very violent,” he explained.
“A Muslim has to learn the Quran literally. Each letter of the Quran is the word of God, and if you have people memorizing verses like ‘Go and kill the infidels’ — and those who do not say, ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great], or ‘There is one God, Allah, and there is one prophet, Muhammad,’ are the infidels, this is the problem,” he said.
He thinks Western governments that have relationships with Muslim-majority governments need to insist those governments confront the promotion of violence and “reform your book of religion.”
Evidence of Indifference
The patriarch sees evidence that wealthy Muslim countries don’t care about the Syrian people in their lack of involvement in the refugee crisis.
People like German Chancellor Angela Merkel “don’t have the courage to tell countries like Saudi Arabia — which has plenty of land and plenty of money, and is much closer to the majority of refugees, in terms of language, culture and religion — to find a temporary place for the refugees, since they are telling us Assad will soon be gone. Okay, then, give them a place to live until they can go back to their country,” observed the patriarch.
“No. It is a lie, a lie. They are not concerned with the fate of the Syrian people,” only with a political takeover of the government.
The patriarch hopes Catholic leaders from the Middle East can have an encounter with the Holy Father “to tell him about the tragedy, so he can alert the world.” In fact, Pope Francis launched an effort to promote political, rather than military, solutions in Syria.
The patriarch is especially fed up with “lying, hypocrisy and manipulation of public opinion” in the West, with regard to Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon, where tension is increasing.
Western politicians “still instigate the prolongation of an absurd war in Syria out of geopolitical opportunism,” knowing there is no moderate opposition “to topple a legitimate government,” he said.
Although he was quick to thank the Catholic Church in the United States, especially institutions that have volunteered “to help our people stay [in the Middle East] and keep going as Eastern Churches of the apostolic time,” he said Catholics have to be more assertive “to tell the truth, beginning with the elected people and the media.”
The dedicated Church leader recounted, “I keep telling the U.S. bishops, ‘I thank you for your humanitarian aid, but it is not really what we need.’”
He continued, “We need them to stand up for the values of the Founding Fathers, defending human rights, religious freedom and the truth, while talking to those countries where Muslims make the majority.”
“We need Catholics to stand up — no more silent majority; since you live in a democratic country, you have to tell the truth” on our behalf, the beleaguered patriarch requested.
Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning
international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.