Syriac-Catholic Patriarch: ‘Our People Feel They Have Been Abandoned’

Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan implores Western political leaders, notably including President Obama, to do more to defend persecuted Middle-East Christians.


BISHOP FOR THE PERSECUTED. Archbishop Ignace Youssif III Younan at the ‘Prayer for Peace’ event at Parrocchia di Santa Maria ai Monti Church in Rome on April 17. Daniel Ibáñez/CNA


VATICAN CITY — So serious is the persecution and near extinction of Christians in parts of the Middle East that the Holy See should bring key foreign ministers from powerful Western nations to the Vatican and have Pope Francis call on their help to protect and defend them.

This is the proposal of Syriac-Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of Antioch and All the East, who was in Rome to attend “Under Caesar’s Sword” — an international Rome conference on the Christian response to persecution held by the University of Notre Dame Dec. 10-12.

In this Dec. 11 interview with Edward Pentin, the Register’s Rome correspondent, Archbishop Younan explains how, unlike Muslims in the region, who are also victims of regional violence, the “very survival” of Christians, living in the cradle of the faith, is at stake.

He also criticizes the Obama administration for failing to do enough because of political correctness, discusses the possibility of a papal encyclical on persecuted Christians and reflects on the recent synod on the family, which he attended as a synod father.


Could you please give us a clearer picture of the situation in Syria and your own concerns?

I’m very much concerned, and even alarmed about, the situation of my Catholic community, especially in northern Iraq, the plain of Nineveh, as well as northeastern Syria. It’s a time of very big trial and difficulties of suffering for us, because, till now, we’ve not seen on the horizon any hope for our people to be inspired by the Lord’s grace to keep going, to stay in their homeland, their ancestors’ homeland, in Iraq and Syria.

Therefore, as head of a Church community, we suffer with them and have real and great pain in dealing with this alarming situation.

The people there feel they have been abandoned, even betrayed, by their brethren in the West, in the United States, the European Union or other countries. They try to help them, but it seems that help doesn’t go further than to assist them in their humanitarian needs. The people want to keep living in their homeland, but with the assurance of those on the international scene that they will be able to live in their homeland with security and human dignity.


There is still some apathy about this issue, including among Catholics. What could help them wake up more to the realities of persecuted Christians and resist being desensitized to these atrocities in the Middle East?

First of all, I have to say that we are thankful to our brethren in our Catholic Church who stand up for us to help with humanitarian assistance, because we have plenty of need.

Secondly, I would say all Catholics are mostly part of a silent majority and need to stand up for human rights in the whole world. For us, it’s an existential need in the Middle East, because our very survival is at stake. That means we are small churches; and if the Middle East is emptied of those Christians — representing the descendants of the first Christian community where our faith was born, the cradle of where our faith was born, then our civilization — our culture, our identity, our heritage and our language will be lost forever.

So we beg the Western countries to stand up for our lives; and that means telling governments, and those who are either religious leaders in Islam or in Arabic governments, to grant full rights and liberties to all citizens, including minorities, particularly the Christian minority as well.

It will not come automatically. It has to be requested by those nations who are powerful on the international scene — you know, the Middle-Eastern oil-producing countries. They need Western countries.

Where will they go to sell their oil but to the Western industrialized countries?

It’s very sad to say those countries, the well-developed countries, aren’t united to face these kind of duties and responsibilities — [it’s necessary] to tell those powerful oil-rich countries not to mix religion and politics. That means not using political Islam in their constitutions and governments.


Do you think President Obama has done too little to stand up for Christians and say, for example, that genocide is going on in the region?

The Obama administration has done very little towards the faith and the survival of Christian minorities in the Middle East. Because, up till now, they haven’t recognized that Christians are the most vulnerable, along with other small minorities, like the Yazidis.

But there’s a difference: When you say Muslims have been also targeted by Daesh [ISIS] and other similar groups, it’s true; they’ve been murdered and abused. But unlike them, we as Christians in that homeland, the land of our ancestors, face the threat to our survival. We’re much smaller than them.

Let’s take Iraq, for example. Christians there were 1.5% of the population when there was the attack on our cathedral in Baghdad, Our Lady of Deliverance, on Oct. 31, 2010, when 48 martyrs were killed.

So, in one day, we have that number [lost]; but for us, who are less numerous than Muslims, it’s a very grave, serious matter. You can’t compare it. If we’re 1.5%, and Muslims make up 90% of the population — if you multiplied that proportion by 48, you’d have the equivalent of more than 4,300 martyrs having been killed at that same time.

We say they are targeting other Muslims — okay, we’re against targeting any innocent human beings — but for us, we also have the problem of survival. And the United States administration doesn’t want to mention this, out of political correctness.


The Knights of Columbus organized a letter signed by a broad coalition of religious leaders and scholars asking the State Department to include Christians in any determination that genocide is taking place in the region. What do you think of this initiative?

I am with them. We also sent a letter, the Syrian Orthodox patriarch and myself, to Congress and to the White House, asking them to recognize that we were wiped out in Turkey.

In that [Armenian] genocide of 1915, hundreds of thousands of our people were either killed or uprooted from their land, and we don’t know where they are now. So it’s our identity, our culture, our faith that were and are targeted by such genocidal acts.


Would you like to see a papal encyclical on persecution?

We hope to have one, but I don’t think it’ll happen. Right now, I would prefer to see that the Holy See so cared about all of Christianity in the Middle East that it would invite representatives of all those leaders that have influence on the international scene — like [U.N. Secretary General] Ban Ki Moon, [U.S. Secretary of State] John Kerry, [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergei Lavrov or [E.U. Foreign Affairs Commissioner] Federica Mogherini, together with some heads of churches, concerned about that situation — to meet, just for a couple of hours at the Vatican.

The meeting could be convoked by Pope Francis to say to them: “My friends, we have a very serious problem here in the Middle East, the cradle of our faith, as well as of Judaism and Islam.

“And now, we are facing this kind of uprooting — emptying of the region — of its Christian communities, the ones who first evangelized. We’re not against any religion, or any people, but you have to think very seriously about this — that it’s of great concern to Christians around the world.”