TORONTO, Canada— One of the top Catholic leaders in the Middle East said the very existence of Christians in Iraq and Syria is at risk, and that they will disappear unless the West demands that rich countries in the region defend the “fundamental human right” of religious freedom.
“The very existence of Eastern Churches, those churches that come from the apostles’ time, is at stake, in danger,” said Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church on Wednesday, speaking at the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus.
Christians are an “endangered species” Younan said, while decrying that the current genocide of Christians, unlike that of the Armenians in the early 20th century, is happening “before the eyes of the whole world, and the global indifference is stunning!”
Their survival in the Middle East, he said, “is not going to be assured [by the] hypocritical and Machiavellian agenda of the powerful countries and politicians of the West.”
Younan was referring to the West and the United Nations forging deals with wealthy Middle Eastern countries, for instance for access to their oil reserves, while looking the other way when it comes to violating the quintessential principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: religious freedom.
Addressing the opening session of the Knights’ 134th Supreme Convention taking place in Toronto, Canada, Younan said that since religious freedom in the Middle East is intrinsically linked to the Islamic religion, Christians in the region can’t understand how Western countries can close their eyes to the danger posed by political parties based on Islam.
He also challenged perceptions that there’s nothing inherently violent about Islam.
To get his point across, Younan quoted a saying of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, available on the website of the party founded in 1928: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. The Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way and dying for God is our ultimate desire.”
He then said that Christians too are ready to shed their lives for Christ, while arguing that what’s going on in the Middle East, the United States, Europe, and last week’s murder of French priest Jacques Hamel, is “Jihad.”
“Who taught these two young men who slaughtered the priest?” Younan asked. “Their Iman alienated them as children and as youth, and told them to memorize all the verses of the Qur’an.”
The Muslim sacred text, he said, has verses that inspire tolerance, but also those that instigate violence.
“If you tell these kids that those verses are literally coming from God, you’ll be able to turn that young man into a beast: since they don’t have exegesis, and they have to memorize those verses, it won’t be easy to prevent them from becoming terrorists or killers,” he said.
The patriarch said he often hears the question from his brother bishops, and even Syrian leaders living in the West, “what can be done for Christians in the region?” He said that “a lot can be done,” beginning by standing up to promote application of the principle of religious freedom, considered by the United Nations as a fundamental human right.
“You can’t be allied with regimes that discriminate, or do not accept the religious freedom of non-Muslims … It’s not honest or sincere to be allied to such a regime, and to say we have an annual report about religious freedom,” Younan said.
Although he didn’t point fingers, his comments can easily be interpreted as a direct reference to the United States, allied to countries such as Saudi Arabia, while it sponsors a Commission on International Religious Freedom that produces an annual report warning of the growth of religious intolerance around the globe.
Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the region, “allows” Christian foreigners to enter the country as temporary workers, which is the reason why there’s an estimated 1.2 million Christians living there, most of whom come from the Philippines.
Those Christians are not allowed to practice their faith openly and items belonging to religions other than Islam are prohibited, so no Bible, crucifixes, or statues of the Virgin Mary are allowed.
“I am here not to plead for humanitarian assistance, you have done a lot. What we need most is for you to stand up and defend our religious freedom and our civil rights,” Younan said, asking for Western countries, together with the Russian Federation, China and the U.N. to tell countries in the region that it’s no longer acceptable for them not to separate religion from the state.
He did, however, acknowledge that the situation in Lebanon is different, as Christians there are not seen as second class citizens, they’re not forced to convert to marry a Muslim person, nor forced to register as Christians in a civic book, as they do in the others.
“We can’t find a solution because nobody would help us, nobody tells those regimes this is no longer acceptable,” Younan said, adding that in Syria and Iraq, as result of the ongoing war, morale among Christians is becoming weak.
Younan also said that in the last five and a half years, since the war started, more than half a million Christians have been displaced in Syria.
“We continue to visit them, to try to inspire hope and faith, but it’s not easy. And why? Because Christians in Syria feel abandoned and almost betrayed by the so called ‘powerful nations,’” he said.
Younan also regretted that at times, the West is more concerned with the destruction of archeological sites, such as the case of the historic city of Palmyra, than about the people who had to flee these regions, and the thousands who were murdered by the Islamic State.
The patriarch said that for years, Christian leaders have warned the West about the complexity of the situation both in Syria and Iraq, saying that in these countries one can’t speak of an “Arab Spring” because there are several minorities separated from the majority by language, religion and culture.
“We have to be very careful about imposing Western democracy in these countries, where they can’t separate religion from state,” he said.
Younan also said that the window of action to save the Christian minorities in the region is closing. In Iraq, less than one percent of the population today is Christian, he said, while during the regime of Sadam Hussein they represented more than five percent. In Syria, they’ve gone from 19 percent in the 1950s to less than six percent today.
“Soon, Iraq, Syria and even Lebanon will be like Turkey,” he said.
Turkey was the home to many Fathers of the Church, the apostles preached there in the first century and it was the setting for several ecumenical councils. Yet today, according to Younan, there are very few Christians left.
The Syriac leader closed his address thanking the more than 100 bishops attending the Knights of Columbus assembly for helping Christians in the Middle East “resist the temptation of leaving the land of our forefathers.”
Christianity disappearing from the region, he said, would be “a great loss not only for our land but for the world.”
When he finished his address, Younan received a standing ovation.
John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America and a lawyer who’s written on issues of religious freedom, was in the audience for Younan’s address. He said he’s not sure how realistic it is to expect Western nations such as the United States to fully deploy their influence to press for the sort of reform the Syrian patriarch described.
“It’s a tall order,” Garvey told Crux. “I was thinking about our allies such as Saudi Arabia, and it doesn’t seem like something we’re likely to do,” he said.
“But the world would be a better place if they did and we did, wouldn’t it?”