Resurrection Hope Amid Suffering and Grief in Syria

His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef III Younan made a pre-Easter visit to his beleaguered faithful in Syria.

Patriarch Younan blesses a child in Aleppo, Syria.
Patriarch Younan blesses a child in Aleppo, Syria. (photo: Courtesy of Syriac Catholic Patriarchate)

His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef III Younan, patriarch of Antioch and All the East for Syriac Catholics, regularly visits his beleaguered faithful in Syria and Iraq to offer them support and to share in their suffering.

Born in Hassake, Syria, his parents were survivors of genocide when, as little children, they had fled to Syria from Southeast Turkey with their mothers in 1918.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II appointed him as the first bishop of the new Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada, based in New Jersey. He 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 Jan. 20, 2009, as patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch.

Patriarch Younan is the spiritual leader of the world’s 200,000 Syriac Catholics. From the patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon, the head of the Syriac Catholic Church shared with the Register about his pre-Easter visit to war-ravaged Syria.

 

Just prior to Easter, you spent time in Syria, and that included visits to Aleppo and Homs. What is your assessment of the situation there?

First, I thank the Risen Lord for giving me the unique opportunity to recently travel to Homs and Aleppo, Syria, from April 6 to 12. I began with a two-day visit to Homs, meeting and praying with displaced people. From there, I headed, always by land, for a four-day visit to Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria, devastated by the sectarian war. My assessment, after this long-due visit to that horribly beleaguered city, was a mixture of distress and hope: a lot of sadness in the face of destruction and a kind of relief after the liberation and unification of the entire city.  

 

What is not being understood — or is being misconstrued by the media — about what is happening in Syria?

We, Christians of the Middle East, are indeed very disappointed and feel much betrayed by the agglomerate media and some politicians of the West. Dealing mostly with the long-going war in Syria, they continue to pound unscrupulously upon a sovereign country recognized by the United Nations. Under the pretext of introducing democracy in a region where the amalgam of state and religion is a kind of dogma in Islam, they kept fomenting a bloody and destructive sectarian conflict, in a country that was very likely vowed to establish one of the best civilized systems of government in the region. Motivated primarily by sectarian hatred, terrorist bands caused a lot of destruction, of killing and eradicating innocent people, and most particularly Christians.

 

You were in Syria when the United States launched a military strike on a Syrian government air base April 6. What was your reaction, and what did you witness?

Yes, indeed, on that Friday morning, April 7, I was about to travel to Hafar, a Syriac village in the desert some 40 miles southeast of Homs, central Syria, to celebrate as scheduled a funeral Mass for a priest of ours. We exceptionally were allowed to pass nearby the military airport of Al-Shueyrat, halfway between Homs and Hafar and where the so-called strike did occur (a strike I still consider an aggression because no fair investigation was ever made.)

 

In Aleppo, you met with families of those who were killed. How are they coping, and what did they share with you?

Through the long four-hour drive from Homs to Aleppo, we were struck by the level of destruction and desolation in villages, city quarters and most particularly while entering Aleppo from the east, of the once famous, flourishing industrial area. All ancient cathedrals of Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches were struck, and half are destroyed. In the face of this frightening devastation, we could not but shed tears.

I had the opportunity to celebrate Palm Sunday in our cathedral, Our Lady of the Assumption, packed with the faithful, who were using umbrellas because of the falling rain, amid holes in the ceiling and broken windows. I met with a couple of hundred youngsters very anxious about facing their future.

But the most moving [moment] was when I met with families grieving for their loved ones. I tried to console some 50 people who could come to tell us of their suffering about their loss of children, husbands, sisters and brothers. It was a really uplifting time, sharing with them consolation, faith in the Redeemer and hope in the Resurrection that we were about to commemorate.

 

Can you describe the scenes of the destruction you encountered and how people are living and compare that with your previous visits prior to the conflict — how life was for the Syrian people, particularly for Christians?

There are no words to describe the level of destruction that hit Aleppo. In all my visits there till May 2012, I was amazed to see how much Aleppo was a booming, cosmopolitan and very peaceful city. All its inhabitants, Muslims and Christians of all Eastern and Western Churches, were living a wonderful tolerant and uplifting togetherness. The ones who destroyed that beautiful mosaic, for whatever reason, are the real criminals!

 

During your visit to Syria, you met with Syrian officials, including Muslim leaders. What views were shared?

The first day of my arrival in Aleppo, we had the visit of all heads of churches and Muslim sheikhs, along with many civilian leaders. Monday, April 10, was programmed to visit the old city, cathedrals and the old mosque of the Umayyad that was damaged by the conflict. During that visit, I was received by a half-dozen sheikhs and architects, who showed the extension of damages.

All Christian and Muslim leaders were very upset about the siege imposed for five years on the largest part of Aleppo loyal to the government. They were very disappointed that the international media was easy to forget their plight, not mentioning the killing and uprooting at the hands of radical and terrorist foreigners. They all showed their sincere intention to overpass this period of torment and overcome the climate of hatred, created by religious sectarian fanatics.

 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said “steps are underway” to seek Syrian President Bashar Assad’s removal. What is your opinion?

Personally, I still trust in the promises of President Trump, who fought against the old establishment. To make America great, we have to remember that the United States should remain “a land of opportunities” and not become “a land of opportunism.”

It is up to the Syrian people to decide about their future, their elected people and government.

 

From your perspective, what should the international community be doing?

It is essential to first stop the bloody conflict, by avoiding the channeling of money and fighters into Syria, a sovereign country.

It is time to negotiate reconciliation and dialogue among all segments of the Syrian population. This will be only possible through working with Russia. The truth is that Syrian people of all denominations, most particularly Christians, owe to Russia their deliverance of horrendous radical terrorists, those who kill and slaughter in the name of “their allah!” Just remember the recent massacre of hundreds of children and women on Saturday, April 15, near Aleppo.

 

Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.

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