“The West is fueling the catastrophic tragedies we see unfolding before our eyes. We have said many times that inciting violence in Syria would only lead to chaos; and chaos leads to civil war, or vice versa. Yet chaos is also the greatest enemy of minorities, especially the Christian minority both in Syria and in Iraq.”
Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church Mar Ignace Youssif III Younan addressed these strong words to the world in a recent interview with Aleteia.
These are tough words, proclaimed with the force of one who has suffered and is still suffering at seeing his community and his country destroyed before the world’s indifferent conscience.
In this interview, the Patriarch blames the West and confronts it with realities often hard to accept.
Patriarch Younan, what is the current situation in Syria? What is the Church experiencing at this stage in the conflict?
The conflict continues unabated. All sides in the field have their weapons and their supporters. But there is a big difference between the government forces — not “the regime,” since Syria has a recognized government and is a member of the United Nations — who want to defend their people; and others, who — however we wish to refer to them — opposition forces, rebels or revolutionaries — are unfortunately destroying the country.
A few days ago, I spent time in Al-Qaryatain and Palmyra and I witnessed with my own eyes the destruction taking place in those two cities. I went to Al-Qaryatain because there are two communities there, one Syro-Orthodox and one Syro-Catholic, both with a parish church. We also had the monastery of Mar Elian, which is now completely destroyed. Both churches, especially the Orthodox, have been almost razed to the ground.
Then I went to Palmyra, where we had a small church that was destroyed along with the rectory. Now the international community is concerned about the archaeological monuments of Palmyra, which are well known throughout the world, but for more than five years there has been little interest in the innocent victims. Especially given what is now happening in Aleppo, this saddens us very much.
The exodus taking place is also a very difficult situation. Does your community see the possibility of remaining, or … ?
This has been an injustice not only for my community but for all Syrians. We Christians are certainly a minority. We have suffered persecution, abuse, and killing like others have, but we are the weakest and we don’t have any enemies either in the State or among the rebels. We do not agree with those who are destroying the country and killing its people. At the same time, we consider to be accomplices all those who incited these terrorist bands and so-called rebels for, according to the criminal law, one who incites a murder must also be accused of being a criminal himself, and the one who knows and remains indifferent should also suffer punishment.
That is what I said during a recent meeting in Turin, where I spoke about the complicity of Western politicians. It is certain they knew that inciting violence over oil revenue and the sale of weapons would eventually destroy the country. Soon I will go to Homs [in western Syria] for the Ordination of our new bishop. The situation is still holding up there and you can go there because the area is controlled by the government, but the further you go towards Aleppo, the more difficult things become. And we do not know what else will happen in the near future.
In the face of this tragedy, our readers wonder what they can do.
If your dear readers in the West consider that the countries where they live are democratic countries, then they have to raise their voices and tell their governments: You are participating in a genocide of minorities, especially the Christian minority. Because genocide doesn’t only mean killing all the members of a community, but also forcing them to flee their country to all parts of the world, uprooting them from the homeland of their ancestors, and destroying a culture and society and religious tradition. For we are “sui iuris” Churches, that is, endowed with our history, even though we are not very large. This is horrendous.
So your readers need to understand that they should not accept what the mass media and politicians abusing their power say. It is no longer acceptable nor permissible to close one’s eyes before the atrocities that are being allowed in the 21st century. Seeing this indifference saddens us and makes us suffer even more.
Should Putin’s intervention therefore be acknowledged?
The Russians have been much more serious about helping Syria, which has been divided and battered for so long. It’s true, when I went to Palmyra, it was the Russians who were defending the archaeological sites. What Russia did only in the month of September is worth much more that everything the West has done in the last two years.
We have another example of this in Iraq which, according to the Americans and Westerners, is a country headed toward democracy. Then why don’t they help it seriously to put an end to this Daesh, to the Islamic State? They have been talking for years about stopping or eliminating this caliphate of terror. To tell the truth, the rampant opportunism that exists is now clear. And only we defenseless Christians are caught between the Daesh and Western opportunism.
Our readers, especially in our Arabic edition, pose this question: Many people did not understand Pope Francis’ gesture of bringing 12 Muslims back with him to Rome on his return flight from Greece. Many of our readers have told us: “We are Christians and no one is helping us” … How can we respond to them?
I understand these people and their anxiety, and I understand that there are moments when Christian charity is not understood fully. For me, Pope Francis is the Successor of Peter, Head of the Universal Catholic Church and, urged on by Gospel charity, he wanted to show the world that Christianity does not discriminate against anyone based on religion, race, or skin color.
On the other hand, I can understand perfectly those who wonder about why this happened, and if I meet the Pope I will tell him: Holy Father, it’s not taking 12 Syrians among those who suffer and are drowning that resolves the problem. We would instead prefer that Your Holiness make a real decision.
I believe the Pope met the American Vice-President, Joe Biden. The Pope needs to say clearly that the policies adopted by Western politicians are absolutely unjust and goes against charity and justice. They could have gradually reformed the systems of government. You can’t export so-called Western democracy to countries where there is still an amalgam of religion and State. This fusion exists in all the countries of the Middle East, except Lebanon, and this means that you will never have a true democracy as long as this fusion of religion and state continues, because we know that in Islam the Koran is read and interpreted literally.
There are therefore those who say “This is our religion,” but let’s not forget that there are verses soaked in violence and that incite violence. And so each group understands these verses as it wishes, because there is no final religious authority to warn them. Here we are faced with a problem of exegesis, and certain things need to be understood properly.
And so one of the results is that we are faced with an Islamic State that continues to commit these horrors in the name of Islam. They interpret the religion as they wish. Not all Muslims are terrorists, but unfortunately the terrorists of the 21st century so far have all been Muslims. We have to say it clearly, and we ask our fellow Muslims to be vigilant. Personally, I have always said that the speeches in the mosques should be calls for coexistence and peace and not accusations of infidelity addressed to other religions.
What personally has been the deepest wound in these years of conflict, and what has caused you to weep most?
I have lived and experienced the Syrian conflict first hand, because I come from the province of Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria. A few months ago, the Daesh invaded the peaceful villages of the Khabour region and forced the inhabitants to flee. About 300 to 400 people were kidnapped. Some were released, but we still don’t know anything about the others.
In Iraq, I think of the tragedy of the faithful who have been uprooted from the Nineveh plain. For us, this is heart-wrenching. We suffer much. I was with them less than three weeks ago. I was in Iraq, in Kurdistan, in Erbil, and I visited almost all of Kurdistan to meet the faithful. There, the situation is becoming more and more tragic. In recent years, approximately 140,000 people have been expelled. We don’t know the exact number because many had taken refuge in different places: some in Baghdad, others in Basra. On the other hand, in our community we have documented everything: at least 11,000 families have been expelled from the Nineveh plain and Mosul, and of these 11,000 families, only 7,000 are left. The others have gone to Lebanon and Jordan, or Turkey, and have gone through unimaginable suffering crossing seas and oceans.
In speaking about the dilemma of refugees, many Christians say “The Church isn’t helping us,” perhaps because they are only focused on what they have right before their eyes. Can you explain how the Church is providing assistance?
I can understand the humanitarian needs of these refugees who have been driven out and uprooted. On the other hand, we cannot forget and we cannot deny that Churches are giving a helping hand. Churches are not nations or States. We are not countries able to donate millions. We are simply doing everything possible.
I was in Iraq, and I have seen what we are doing there. Obviously morale has hit rock bottom, and there is great suffering, because at this point returning home has become a dream. But I saw that the Church is helping refugees at least to maintain a dignified human life. I visited the tents, I visited the churches and the buildings where refugees are being housed. The Church is working hard. I visited the churches that have been built for prayer, the schools, and our clinic where priests and nuns are busy working with the community. It is true that we cannot respond to all the needs — we are not an oil-rich country or a wealthy European nation — but we are making a small contribution to meet the needs of thousands of people.
In Lebanon, for example, we are distributing humanitarian aid, and two years ago we opened a school with a garden for 850 children (for Iraqi Christians), which I visited before coming. This school costs us $40,000 per month. We cannot promise the stars, and there will always be people who are dissatisfied, who tells us: “What are you doing to put an end to our Via Crucis? Why don’t you help us to be welcomed by the European countries?” We never do this, nor can we, because it would mean emptying our countries and our lands of the Christian communities that have lived there for thousands of years. Of course, I understand their concerns because this is normal and it is not easy.
We are especially concerned about the young people, and we trying to provide them with schooling and a university, but the problem is that they have begun to lose confidence in their future. I celebrated Easter with our Iraqi Syriac Catholic community. It was Saturday, March 26, in the church we are renting. We celebrated two Masses, one at 6:00 pm and the other at 8:00 pm. Especially at the later Mass, the church was packed and people were out on the street and in the square, and most of them were young families with children. This is what haunts us: How can we help them to remain?
We understand that the Church cannot invite people to leave their lands, but many people have been forced to flee their homes and are in refugee camps where life is very difficult. The Pope brought 12 Muslims back with him to Rome. Can the Patriarchs of the East not not apply pressure to allow the Christians who are still a minority in these refugee camps to leave?
As you know, most of those who have been driven from their land, for example from Iraq, have taken refuge in Kurdistan and are living in tents, or in abandoned buildings, or in rented apartments, which the Church is taking on, in part. So those who are still in their country will never be accepted from outside, but we are trying to help those who are outside Iraq — in Lebanon or in Jordan. However, we will never ask the embassies and consulates to give them visas to leave the country because this would be very negative publicity and would mean that the Church is encouraging emigration. We are doing everything we can, but there are difficult and tragic cases.
Some priests have tried to help Iraqis obtain visas from Cyprus to go to the Czech Republic. There were around one hundred people, but now they have to go back because they feel cheated because they thought the Czech Republic was like Germany or the Netherlands, etc. and now they see that the language and life is hard. But these are issues the bishops and local clergy have to see to. We cannot interfere and say: You have to do this or that, because they know the situation better than we do.
Can you not, as patriarchs, ask or apply pressure to stop the war?
We have to be pastors and proclaim the truth with charity, and we shouldn’t be politicians saying that Christians and Muslims in the Middle East have lived in complete respect for 1400 years. This isn’t true; otherwise, how would we be witnessing the decrease of faithful in the Christian communities? Even in Turkey, 100 years ago there were hundreds of thousands of Christians, Armenians and Syrians. Now everything is empty, so why not tell the truth? The international community has to firmly ask these politicians or these countries not to mix religion and State.
After the tragedy of finding the lifeless body of a child on a Turkish beach, all of them have become humane and compassionate …. but why hasn’t the international community intervened and told Saudi Arabia: “You have so much space and so much oil and money. Why don’t you host these poor people who end up drowning, and host them in small towns and feed them, send them to school, and why don’t you allow them to live with dignity, instead of letting them die?” It’s truly difficult to understand …
Our strategy is to tell everyone the truth.
Perhaps Saudi Arabia’s strategy is not to help these Muslims, after all, because they have other interests … ?
But if you are Westerners, sincere in your actions, this is what you should say. And not that “because there is oil, we are the best of allies” and make us believe, and make everyone else believe, that the Saudi system of government is better than the Syrian.
There is a state senator from Virginia, Dick Black, who traveled to Syria for a three-day visit. He was in Damascus, Homs and Palmyra, and he met both with President al-Assad and the President of the Parliament, and he said — he is the first elected American to tell the truth —: “What happened in Syria was not a movement that originated from within but something dictated from outside.”
Why, in this century, have all these thousands of mercenaries come into this country? Usually, fighters are from a neighboring country, as happens in Africa and Asia. But in this case, they came from all over the world, and this is evidence of this dishonest policy.
We hope that that this American politician can echo this message in his country, and that he will speak about this injustice: Hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded and millions of refugees driven from their homeland. This is truly a great crime, and there are accomplices, not just those who are killing, but also those who have paid and financed it, and incited it, and they are not honest.
Translated from the Italian by Diane Montagna.