LEBANON – The displaced Syriac Catholics of the Iraqi areas of Nineveh and Mosul are fast losing hope that they will ever return home, according to their spiritual leader, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan.
Some 100,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee to the Kurdistan region in the north in the summer of 2014, where they are languishing in expectation of a return that never comes.
In an interview with Crux, the Patriarch — spiritual shepherd to some 200,000 Syriac Catholics worldwide — shared something of the despair of his people at what they regard as the foot-dragging of the western nations. “The people don’t believe anymore in the promises being made,” he says. “They want something real.”
Patriarch Younan is no stranger to suffering himself. He was the son of displaced parents who fled from Mardin in South-East Turkey during the genocide of 1915, taking refuge in Syria, where he was later born in Hassakeh.
Prior to being elected patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church in January 2009, he served for 14 years as the first bishop of the New Jersey-based Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada.
Younan also talks about his recent meeting with Syrian president Bashar Assad, who struck him as sincere in wanting Christians to remain. Younan said “what was done to Syria was clearly unjust, a kind of Machiavellian politics exercised against Syria and the Syrian people” and says he believes Assad’s secular regime was the best alternative for the region.
The Patriarch also spoke about his warm relations with the Syriac Orthodox patriarch, as well as his view of Islam.
Noting that “Western civilization is based on a kind of secularized system of government where religion and politics each have its place,” he says Muslims “don’t want to separate religion and state.”
“And since they understand their Quran literally,” says Younan, “we’re going to have, forever, those fanatic, radical people, who say ‘this is the word of God who asks us to fight the unbelievers, the infidels and we do the right thing.'”
It’s been two years now since the Islamic State uprooted Christians in Iraq. What is the reality for Iraqi Christians?
It’s becoming more and more difficult. We go from bad to worse, it’s very sad to say. The morale is going down, dwindling. I continue to be in contact with the bishop of those who still serve the uprooted community from Mosul and especially the Plain of Nineveh. But the outlook is not really promising since we keep hearing from those powerful nations involved — like the United States and the European Union — that fighting against Daesh (Islamic State’s Arabic acronym) will take a long time. And Mr. Kerry (US Secretary of State) said that the final destruction of Daesh has just begun.
What is your opinion of the planned military campaign to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State? With an expected humanitarian crisis, is there hope for the Christians displaced two years ago to ever return?
Unless Mosul is really liberated and the central government again controls all political, military and security aspects, Christians have no hope of returning home, either to Mosul nor to the nearby Plain of Nineveh, because they no longer believe those who keep saying they are fighting Daesh but whose words are not translating into action.
The problem is that those nations who are taking care of destroying the so-called Daesh think they are dealing only with numbers and lands. They forget that, on the ground, there are people who suffer and who are scared for their future, especially minorities like Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, etc. The people don’t believe anymore in the promises being made. They want something real.
But something real, it’s very complicated. Surely there is tension within the Iraqi population itself: among Sunni, Shiite, Arabs and Kurds. And there is no clear plan how to rebuild that country. If Mosul is liberated, to whom will power be entrusted? To the Kurds? To the central government of Baghdad? And who will ensure security inside Mosul where mostly there are Sunni who are not really, let’s say, welcoming neither to the Shiites or Kurds? So Christians will be caught among those who will continue to fight each other. It’s not easy.
Therefore, I’m saying, people don’t trust anymore those who deal with this problem from far away: Americans, Europeans. They don’t trust because they see, they realize, that those who are involved — the Western powers like the United States and the European Union — have their own geopolitical agenda.
The politicians keep talking about helping Iraqi people and assisting minorities, but that’s not enough to give any kind of security or assurance to those minorities, like Christians. And therefore it’s very sad to say we can’t revive the hope in our people.
We are saddened to see that it’s going to take a long time. On the 6th of August it will be already two years since our people were uprooted from the Nineveh Plain.
Another thing, with the attempted Turkish coup d’état, what will be the consequences? We know very well that in Turkey there are refugees, mostly Syrian, about 2 million or less and (displaced) Christians who go to Turkey to find a way to get out.
Last month you and six of your bishops met with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Can you share with us some of the highlights of your meeting?
First of all, he received us with gentleness, and by that I mean like a gentleman, who was trying to listen to us, to our griefs and problems. The president said that all Syrians are suffering a lot from this horrible crisis. He told us, “I need you to tell your Christian communities that Syria needs them and even the whole Middle East region needs Christians because if Syria and other regions empty of Christians, it will be a great loss for the population, for the future of this region.”
The president said that of course, we have to deal with many problems inside Syria and the conspiratorial plan from outside to destroy the country. He said that surely, Syria needs to reform, etc., but that the best regime would be a secularized regime where everyone will live with equal rights as a citizen.
He said there is this attempt from outside to change our culture, our traditions and even our constitution into a more autocratic regime. As for the end of this bloody crisis, the president said that unless outside countries – regional countries and international countries – cease to foment violence by sending arms and financing those so-called rebels, it’s going to take a long time.
And of course we exposed to the president our dire situation, especially in northeast Syria where Christians are leaving because of the fighting, in Aleppo, which has been besieged for the past four years and central Syria where there are areas where fighting is still taking place like in Homs, northern Homs and east of Homs.
He said surely we will try to end this situation but he reiterated the need for the help of Syrians and also of those who want peace in Syria. The president said that he is for a peaceful solution but that it is not acceptable that those who participate in Geneva talks don’t represent all Syrians. Within Syria there are other opponents — either some political parties or the Kurds — that also must share in the talks in Geneva.
As for Aleppo, he said he’s very much concerned about the tragic situation of that second largest city and the time will come to liberate that city. Archbishop Denys Antoine Chahda (of Aleppo) told the president that it’s an unbearable situation, that people are losing hope. He (Assad) said it’s going to take some time but for sure Aleppo will be liberated.
How did you feel after this meeting?
The meeting lasted for one hour and seven minutes and we felt that the president was really sincere. He can’t be blamed for whatever is happening in that civil sectarian war because many thousands of foreigners – mercenaries and jihadists – entered Syria to fight against the legitimate army. But he’s trying to promise people that a time will come when Syria will be reborn. But, about timing, he has no idea how long it’s going to take.
It’s our belief that what was done to Syria was clearly unjust, a kind of Machiavellian politics exercised against Syria and the Syrian people.
Since the beginning, we told the Western politicians and the Western media that the situation in Syria can’t be compared to the one in Egypt or Tunisia. This situation — the population, the social aspect of Syria — is very complex. There are many minorities living in Syria and many of them don’t trust the Sunni majority who are looking for an autocratic regime.
I have been saying this since the beginning, and since the beginning we were hearing from the Western politicians and the media that the regime will soon fall, that President Assad will be gone in a few weeks, a few months. And now it is more than five and a half years. Look at the consequences of this bloody sectarian war.
We have been accused of siding with the so-called regime but we used to warn the international community that, please, be careful, this situation in Syria is very complex, please try to find a way to get the parties in conflict reconciled. We also used to tell them that the system of government in Syria is one of the best secularized systems. Women have the right to hold all positions, there was religious tolerance for all denominations and literacy was developing much more quickly than other countries. And the kind of socialist regime was the best for a third world country. But the Western powers have their political agenda and they treated this crisis with a kind of Machiavellian spirit.
What more can Pope Francis and the Vatican do for Christians in the Middle East?
They are doing very much, with a lot of solicitude and with Christian solidarity toward those who are suffering eradication and uprooting, who have no other choice but to emigrate.
Pope Francis has always called to end the violence in both countries – Syria and Iraq – and for a kind of reconciliation among various segments of the population. We always look to him as the leader of the Universal Church. He has a lot to do, especially with those who hold the power in the West — Europe and the United States.
We kept asking the Vatican to have His Holiness Pope Francis to call the patriarchs of the Middle East for a meeting of a couple hours, to let us “sound the alarm” regarding the survival of Christians in the Middle East, especially in Mesopotamia and Syria. We don’t know yet when a date will be set.
On the other hand, we also have to say that we’re not finding the needed support of the Catholic Church in Western Europe to help us support our communities (the flock) who emigrate into their countries, while preserving our Eastern identity – our liturgy, our traditions — and allow us to assist those communities with more, let’s say, autonomy. It’s important, because those who emigrate lost everything and they are all kind of lost in the new countries. They need spiritual and pastoral support.
Unfortunately, we have countries in Western Europe in which the hierarchy does not understand our needs and they turn a blind eye to our problems.
We keep telling the Vatican that the plight of immigrants is also a priority. It’s not only about hosting or helping immigrants to get food and shelter. We also need them to help us preserve our Church identity.
For instance, we have a need to send priests of our Syriac Catholic Church to France, Sweden and Germany to serve there.
And it’s very sad to say that most often we have been refused by the local hierarchy to send priests, although we keep telling those hierarchs that our patriarchate will help in sustaining those priests for the first year. We don’t understand why a large diocese refuses to help us send particular priests to assist, to serve and minister to those immigrants.
For example, when I was in Sweden a couple of weeks ago, I had to use Syriac Orthodox churches for the Divine Masses I celebrated, although I am a Catholic patriarch. I don’t know what kind of theology and Canon law they study in the seminary, refusing for a patriarch to celebrate the Mass in the parish church. I was in Berlin two weeks ago and the thing is, I celebrated in a Syriac Orthodox church.
You and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II (based in Damascus, Syria) are an example of ecumenism in action, frequently working together, both on an official level and on a pastoral level. How would you describe the relationship between the two churches?
Surely, the ecumenical progress is well known in the past two generations, especially because of the crisis in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. So the relationship between both sister churches – Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholics – is at its best.
I just met with His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius this week in Atchaneh (the patriarchal residence in Lebanon) to discuss some issues regarding the situation of Christians in Hassakeh and Allepo (Syria).
We have always been in contact, both of us. We try, whenever there is relative calm in Syria and Iraq, to visit and work together – both our churches — on the pastoral and the ecumenical level, not only regarding the dire situation in our communities but especially regarding the immigration and the emptying of our regions.
We also work on the liturgical level, how to enhance our liturgical input in the Universal Church.
I can say the relationship between the two churches is the best among all churches around the world, Catholic and Orthodox. We consider ourselves one Syriac Church of Antioch. We don’t need the adjective “Orthodox” or “Catholic.” We are the Syriac Church of Antioch. And we hope, we pray, that one day will come that we can unite in one Church.
What do you think and how do you feel when you hear of terrorist attacks in the West, such as the horrific attack in Nice?
We feel very saddened because of those terrorist attacks and we feel scared for the future because of this threat of jihadist, takfirist attacks.
I don’t know if it’s the right place to say, that it’s the fault of the politicians and the media. They used to turn their eyes from the problem and they don’t want to take a deep look into it. They keep saying it’s a question of some lost segment of Muslims, or of a few radicals, etc.
But in my opinion, this is avoiding to look at the root of the problem. We have to understand that Western civilization is based on a kind of secularized system of government where religion and politics each have its place. The Muslim community, on the other hand, doesn’t want to separate religion and state.
And since they understand their Quran literally, we’re going to have, forever, those fanatic, radical people, who say “this is the word of God who asks us to fight the unbelievers, the infidels and we do the right thing.”
This is the root of the problem. It has nothing to do with culture, it has nothing to do with politics, it has nothing to do with whatever crisis there is in the world.
Therefore those countries have to tell the imams, the teachers of Islam, those directors of Islamic schools – the madrassas — that you can’t teach the children this way, to memorize those verses that call for violence against others.
We are talking about hate crimes, either by words or by acts: how can you tell yourself that you have, in good conscience, allowed those people to teach the children that way? In the name of religious freedom, this, for me, is the main problem.