Many Christians have left Iraq, and more want to leave, due to seemingly perpetual conflict, instability and a lack of jobs.
But in Syria the situation is very different, and the reason is mainly because President Bashar Assad guarantees Christians’ survival. “If there’s a regime change in Syria,” warns Sebastiano Caputo, head of SOS Chrétiéns d’Orient in Italy, a Catholic humanitarian charity, “Christians will go, as they’ve done in Iraq.”
That’s why, he adds, it’s “very important to offer humanitarian help, but at same time make people aware in the West about their situation and get their message out to our countries.”
Caputo recently helped set up an Italian branch of the charity that has grown rapidly since it was founded by a group of young French Catholics in 2013. It now has more than 1,400 volunteers working in five countries.
In this interview with the Register in Rome last month, Caputo explained more about the charity’s work, how the needs of Christians vary widely across the Middle East, and why SOS Chrétiéns d’Orient could at some point also direct its help to Christians in the West, where he says the persecution is “psychological” rather than physical.
SOS Chrétiéns d’Orient has expanded now to Italy. How did this come about, and how did you get involved?
I’m a journalist. I work for [the Italian daily newspaper] Il Giornale and Treccani, an encyclopedia where I’ve written about foreign policy and relations between states, with a focus on the Middle East. So I’ve traveled a lot over the past three years. When I was in Damascus in 2015 — in September, during a conference — I was with the chief of mission of SOS Chrétiéns in Syria. I knew him through all the travel I’ve made in the Middle East: Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. I saw how this association worked with Christians in the Middle East. So when I came back to Italy last month, I called on Charles De Meyer and Benjamin [Blanchard, founders of the Paris-based SOS Chrétiéns d’Orient] and asked if Paris was interested in creating a representative office in Rome.
How did they react?
They were very happy about that because Rome is the city of the Vatican and Italy is a country in the middle of the Mediterranean and has an important Mediterranean culture. So they helped me to set up this office. On April 26, the co-founder of SOS, Charles De Meyer, came to Rome and we held a press conference to introduce the Italian members. There were 100 people there interested in the venture. Now the goal is to send a team of 10 Italian volunteers to join the French missions throughout the Middle East where SOS is present. Secondly, the goal is to work to build a network for donors, because SOS only works with private donors. They collect donations, and the volunteers seek donations in the field. So it’s very transparent: It’s good for the donors, but also the volunteers. They’re very young Westerners, tired of doing nothing [to help those in need], and these people go to these countries where Christians face a difficult situation, war principally, but not only that.
Is the term “Christian persecution” too broad?
Yes, it’s very simple to speak about Christian persecution, but all the countries are different: Some suffer from war and discrimination, but Lebanon is a multiconfessional country. In Iraq, the problem was when Daesh (ISIS) was there. Most Christians have left the Nineveh Plain, but in Syria, Christians have a good social position. The good thing about SOS [volunteers] is that when they go to a country, they respect the society and try not to put Christians in danger. They respect the society and a multiconfessional society. They work for the survival of a multiethnic and confessional society.
Some Muslims also work with SOS, is that right?
Yes, when they work with local people, it’s often with Christians, but also with Muslims — for example, in Syria and other Muslim countries, so they don’t meet discrimination. They respect all the people there, and that’s a good thing.
What practical help do you give, say, in Iraq compared to Syria?
Part of it is humanitarian work: We give food to the people and help other Christian communities to rebuild churches or help projects such as scouts, and they help to rebuild schools or hospitals. And when they rebuild hospitals and schools, it’s not just for Christians, but all the population. We don’t ask if they are baptized. The differences in Iraq and Syria are not great, as both countries have been at war with Daesh. So it was more about emergency help, food and water while in Egypt and Lebanon, which are not at war. We offer help teaching English and French to young people, or just live with them. It’s important that they know the West is with them, important that we know each other, and they feel our presence there.
Do Christians in Iraq and Syria want to stay?
This is a very important question because Iraq has experienced war since 2003. Many there have only ever known war and don’t know what peace is, and so they want to leave because they don’t have the past anymore. In Syria, it’s different. They’ve had war for eight years, but before that, society was very tolerant, multiconfessional and peaceful. So people have a memory of what life was like before the war and want to stay. So it’s completely different: All the Christians in Iraq want to go; in Syria, most Christians want to stay. It’s very interesting. I noticed that when I went to Syria. Before and during the war, they always have had a good relationship with the government and the government respects the Christian communities.
As long as President Bashar Assad is there, they’ll want to stay?
Yes, for eight years they tried to pass a message to the Western world that if there’s a regime change in Syria, Christians will go, as they’ve done in Iraq. That’s why it’s very important to offer humanitarian help but at the same time make people aware in the West about their situation and get their message out to our countries.
Do you think Christians will come back to Iraq?
It’s very difficult to say. For years, Christians have gone down in great numbers, a crazy drop. Also, all Christians I meet there want to go. When I went to a house of Christians, we asked them what they needed. All said, “We need a flight ticket to leave,” but the mission of SOS is to help them to stay, not to go. I think of Benedict XVI, who gave an important principle: Everyone has the right to live in their country because it’s their country.
Will Iraqi Christians keep leaving until they get a leader who protects Christians?
Yes. Their society is completely different from our society; we have to respect that theirs is a tribal society. For traditional societies, religion is very important for everybody; the culture of the leader is very important. That’s why it’s important, above all, we respect that — also the will of the people and the leader they want.
Would you like young Americans to start an SOS in the United States?
Yes, of course. Now we are building an office here in Rome, but maybe in the future other countries can build up something like that so that all countries will have the opportunity to volunteer and send money to these people. These are important things, and maybe networking, contact and hearing the views of others and having conferences in the country [will be included]. We have a lot of problems [that need to be addressed].
Do you see Christians also in the West under threat? We speak of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but should there be an SOS Chrétiéns d’Orient in the West, too?
Yes, of course; I hope so, because sometimes we talk about persecuted Christians of the Middle East, but this persecution is physical. In the Western world, it is psychological, moral and also a state persecution. It’s also symbolic: forbidding the cross, attacks against the family. So it’s very important to work together. And I think Christians in the East can help Christians in the West to improve and vice versa, because the West isn’t Catholic or Christian anymore [as a culture]; we’re a minority. The West’s ideology is capitalism, consumerism and hedonism. The young who go and help in the Middle East are often traditional Catholics, and this can help a lot: the interaction between cultures to rediscover our identity.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.