‘What Is Our Future Here?’

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Discusses Homeland’s Uncertainty

Ignatius Youssef III Younan, patriarch of Antioch for the Syriac Catholic Church, regularly visits his beleaguered faithful. They pose to him the same questions that overshadow their daily lives: “What is our future here?” Patriarch Younan spoke with the Register March 25 at the patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon.


As a native of Hassakeh, Syria, how do you view the situation there?

Based on my contacts with Archbishop Behnan Hindo of the Syriac Catholic Church and Bishop Aprem Nathanael of the Assyrian Church of the East, who are the only heads of Churches remaining in Hassakeh, the situation over there is still very tense. People are in disarray and filled with fear. The invasion by the Islamic State and its supporters on some 30 Christian villages on the Khabur River Feb. 23 resulted in the killing of more than two dozen people, the kidnapping of around 300 and the uprooting of around 2,500 people. The survivors had nowhere to go other than to Hassakeh, the capital of the province, where they obtained refuge in church halls and some abandoned buildings. In Hassakeh, people manage to survive because of the presence of the Syrian National Army that ensures security, along with the Kurdish Protection Army and some Christian defense groups, which are monitoring and defending the city. Because of the ongoing tension, the region is besieged by terrorists. It happens that sometimes those entities clash among themselves, as occurred a few weeks ago. But what is most feared are the booby-trapped explosives that usually hit civilians and cause a lot of destruction, as well as instilling more fear.


What is your assessment of the escalating crisis in Syria?

We are very saddened by what is happening to Syria. It’s over four years now of violent, lethal conflict, and we still have Westerners calling for the fall of what they call the Syrian regime. It is a legitimate government still recognized by the U.N. It has its errors, its weaknesses, its failures. But that doesn’t mean that Westerners have the right to keep hammering the government, aiming for it to fall. If this Syrian government falls, it will be a kind of hecatomb — that means a horrible catastrophe — on the whole region. And it will primarily hit minorities, especially the Christian communities, who are the most vulnerable in this ongoing conflict. The Western countries keep formatting the conflict. That means they ship arms and people from all around the world to side with the so-called moderate opposition. There is no moderate opposition in Syria. This is a lie. They have to stop arming terrorists. Instead, help the local governments to solve their problems. If the Western countries really want a peaceful solution to the crisis, they should have implemented the human rights recognized by the United Nations. They should have recognized or imposed separation between religion and state. This fighting — in Iraq, in Syria and other countries in the Middle East — we know it is mostly confessional. Why? Because the Muslim majority does not want to separate religion from the public life, and that doesn’t inspire trust and safety to the minorities. Therefore, we have this situation of ongoing, violent conflict.


What can Christians in the West do to help?

Christians are waking up, thanks be to God. They have shown solidarity and compassion with their brothers and sisters of Syria and Iraq who are enduring this tragedy. They can, of course, offer their prayers and their sacrifices to the Lord, the Prince of Peace, to grant his peace to the whole region. This is the first thing we ask them to do: praying, offering help and sharing in the suffering of the Lord, so that their brethren can get along with this huge testing of their lives in this very, very harsh suffering, for their tragic situation where they are. Secondly, in my opinion, the silent majority in the West — especially Christians and most particularly Catholics — have to know that it’s time to get up and ask their politicians: What are they doing in the Middle East: forgetting, neglecting, abandoning vulnerable minorities, especially Christians, to a very, very dangerous situation, in which they are forced either to convert to Islam or to leave the lands of their ancestors?

Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.

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