TORONTO, Canada—Catholic leaders in the Middle East say that the United Sates has the “moral responsibility” to help stop the savagery against Christians in the region, and to provide assistance to help them stay in the region, because it was the U.S. that unleashed the chaos in the first place.
“They were the ones who invaded [Iraq] in 2003 and changed the whole region, and they had the moral responsibility to fix the situation before leaving the country,” said the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Erbil, Iraq, Bashar Matti Warda.
Jean-Clément Jeanbart, Greek Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, the “martyred city” of Syria, said that the U.S. has a two-fold responsibility. On the one hand, he asked the U.S. government to ensure that the aid being sent to the region is also distributed among Christians, which, he said, means entrusting a portion of it to the churches.
As the system is set up, he said, all the aid goes to the refugee camps. Yet Christians see their lives at risk there, so they generally choose to seek shelter at churches and convents instead.
“If the help went to the churches, it wouldn’t mean that they’re giving special rights to Christians, but that they’re actually helping everyone,”Jeanbart said at a press conference held on Wednesday during the Knights of Columbus’s 134th Supreme Convention, which took place in Toronto, Canada.
The many Christian churches in the region — in Syria, there are six different Catholic rites alone — fund schools, hospitals, and provide shelter to all refugees, without distinguishing between Muslims, Yazidis or Christians, he said.
Jeanbart agreed with Warda that the U.S. has a greater responsibility than other countries, because it made a “mistake” of thinking that it was a “good strategy” to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
Jeanbart added that he feels the U.S. may be on the brink of making the same mistake again today in Syria, by trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Both he and Warda believe that the alternative to the kind of strongmen that Hussein and Assad represent is complete chaos.
Patriarch Joseph Ignatius III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church recalled that when the UK-educated Assad took control of the country from his father, the United States and France both supported him. He said that the experience of Christians and other minorities in the region is that they’re the first ones to suffer when a government falls.
Younan said that local dictators will try to succeed in governing their country “in a much better way” than any Western-exported democracy. He also believes that countries such as Syria and Iraq don’t have the basis for a Western-style democracy, the first being a concept of separation between religion and public life.
“In the Middle East, all the countries except Lebanon, have an amalgam of religion and government: Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Shiites in Iran, Sunni Muslims in others,” he said.
Younan said that less than two months ago he and other bishops visited Assad, who told them to ask the Christians to remain in the country, because without them, it wouldn’t be the same. Today, they represent close to six percent of the Syrian population, with most living as internally displaced refugees.
“Over a million Iraqis were killed by the US invasion [in Iraq] … and Assad is the monster?” he asked.
“We’re not siding with him, his party or his government. We side with the people,” Younan said.
Jeanbart echoed the sentiment, saying that the West is not well-informed about what’s going on, with news coverage that is not objective.
“Even though the [Assad] government has a lot of defects, it also has virtues: pluralism, equality between citizens and a kind of democracy which has helped many people to get up and take position. And this is very important,” he said.
“This war is destroying a country full of promise,” he continued, saying that Syria could have been an example of a multicultural and pluralistic country in the region.
For Christians, he said, Syria is their nation, because they arrived there long before the Muslims. In fact, he said, the first Christians in Syria belonged to the Jewish diaspora.
“We are the link between the Old and the New Testaments, we’re effectively the sons of Abraham, the sons of the people of God,” Jeanbart said.
Despite the difficulties, the Catholic leaders are working against the clock to guarantee that Christianity doesn’t disappear from the place where it was born.
According to Warda, the 10,000 Christians left in Erbil live thanks to the humanitarian aid that comes only from churches or Catholic institutions, such as the Knights of Columbus, who in 2015 alone raised $11 million to support Christians in the Middle East.
Talking about the situation in Iraq, Warda said the goal is to keep the Christian families left close to the Nineveh Plains and around Mosul, convincing them to stay until their lands and homes are liberated from the Islamic State.
Referring to the U.S. national elections this November, Warda said it’s time America changes its policy regarding Christians in the Middle East.
“We have to say it: this policy has affected the Middle East greatly. We have to think deeply, because [the Islamic State] is a global problem now, and we have to deal with it not only with arms, but with education and addressing cultural problems too,” he said.
Talking to journalists before the conference began, Younan spoke about the recent murder of a French priest as he was saying Mass. He said that even though it’s terrible to say it, “he’s not the only one.”
“We don’t hear about the Christians who have been killed or kidnapped in the last year,” Younan said. He stressed that two Orthodox bishops and an Italian Catholic priest kidnapped in Syria have been missing for months, with no information on their whereabouts.
Throughout the press conference, Jeanbart was close to tears at several moments. His city, Aleppo, has been under constant bombing for over five years, with countless lives lost and thousands of industries, hospitals, schools and houses being destroyed.
“Our people are terrorized, and we’re in a big danger of disappearing. An exodus has begun. All our friends, all those who want to help us, help us stay where we want,” he said.
“Help us stop this savagery,” Jeanbart pleaded.