Patriarch Ignatius III Younan on the Mideast Exodus

Church Considers Ways to Support Priests Whose Flocks Have Become Refugees

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In June and August of this year more than 120,000 Christian families were forced to leave everything and abandon the lands of Mosul and Qaraqoshe, lands of which they are the oldest residents, to become refugees. The Syriac Catholic Church was by far the most stricken community by this evil caused by Islamic State (ISIS).

This tragedy was the main topic of the Ordinary Synod of the Syro-Antiochean Catholic Church, which ended last Wednesday. Pope Francis addressed the synod participants.

Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East for Syriac Catholics, spoke with ZENIT about the fundamental topics of the Synod.

ZENIT: Your Beatitude, in your opening address of the Synod, you indicated that the Synod would deal with the topic of priestly formation. Can you explain the reason for this choice, at such a critical and dramatic moment for your Church?

Patriarch Younan: The painful events that have struck our Church in the last months were the main reasons that drove us to choose this topic, and to discuss our presence and our destiny as Syrian Church in the Middle East.

As Syrian Christians we are exposed at present to a very great challenge. Our priests find themselves suddenly in a seriously unbalanced situation. And we felt the need to come together to study the most efficient ways to address the present situation.

For instance, from the Eparchy of Mosul alone, one bishop and 25 priests have fled. Many of them now live with refugees. We wished to consider seriously this difficult situation.

ZENIT: You compared the disaster that happened at Mosul with the tragedy that happened a century ago at “Sowaiqat.” Can you explain what really happened?

Patriarch Younan: Up to last June we suffered, as Christians of northern Iraq, a precarious situation of insecurity and lack of official protection by the State. The minorities were paying the highest price of that situation.

In the month of June, we were literally uprooted from Mosul. We were more than 15,000 families. However, the greatest tragedy happened in August, when a good 120,000 Christian families fled the Nineveh Plain. We had a good nine churches there.

Christians constituted the largest group among the minorities. We were 40% of the population. In a few hours, the Plain was emptied of Christians – a tragic and suffered exodus.

ZENIT: You have described the Syriac Catholic Church as a Church “witness and martyr of ancient times.” Why do you consider the Syrians as the most damaged of this tragedy?

Patriarch Younan: What happened at the Nineveh Plain hit the Syrians more than any other minority, because we were the majority there. We numbered about 60,000 persons. Now that we are in Kurdistan, we have no Eparchies supporting us, so that we are literally evacuees.

As opposed to the Chaldean brethren, who are the largest number of Christians and have the patriarchate of Babel, we no longer have structures. Therefore, our faithful live in tents in a situation of painful precariousness.

Statistically, we can say that – unfortunately – more than a third of the faithful of the Syriac Catholic Church has been evacuated and is in diaspora. And God alone knows when they will return or if they will return.

ZENIT: In the Synod’s final document, the international community is requested to “accelerate its operation to liberate Mosul and the cities of the Nineveh Plain.” How do you evaluate the present international policy in Syria and Iraq?

Patriarch Younan: We launched a heartbroken appeal to the international community. In face of the tragedy that has hit us, we cannot but condemn those who contributed to its genesis. There is no doubt that these criminals were not born from nothing. There is a larger political plan that follows a Machiavellian policy, abusing the weak to carry out wretched geopolitical ends.

Hence, it is the duty of the nations that created this monstrous situation to do their utmost to liberate the lands that have been robbed from us. It is their obligation to restore our dignity and to constitute a situation of life that is fitting and sustainable.

ZENIT: How do you evaluate the American air attacks against ISIS’ objectives? Are they sufficient and efficient?

Patriarch Younan: Every person of good will and anyone minimally cautious knows that these air attacks from afar are not sufficient. The ISIS bandits are not a regular army; therefore, they camouflage themselves among the population and it becomes very difficult to strike them. Moreover, they have taken advantage of the inter-confessional (between Sunnis and Shi’ites) and racial (between Arabs and Kurds) clashes. So the air attacks can harm them lightly, but they cannot annihilate them or strike them seriously.

ZENIT: The Synod praised the declarations of the Al-Azhar Congress held in Cairo on December 3-4 where it was stated, among other things, that “Muslims and Christians in the East are brothers, they are part of one civilization and of one nation.” How important is this declaration?

Patriarch Younan: As Christian Patriarchs and Bishops, we have for long invited Muslim brothers to come together and to denounce officially terrorism in the name of religion. And, not only that, but to combat it concretely and to protect the minorities, such as the Christian.

The Al-Azhar initiative is a truly positive sign. It stated that terrorism in the name of religion is not part of the Muslim identity.

We hope that these declarations will have a practical follow-up in reality, through a request addressed to States to fight terrorists and to launch serious formation to tolerance in religious congresses, in mosques and in schools.

ZENIT: Your visit ad limina apostolorum began yesterday. What are you going to ask the Holy Father during your conversations?

Patriarch Younan: We will be a large delegation of about 320 members between Patriarchs, Bishops, Synodal Fathers and priests. Our visit to the Holy Father is a filial visit, which intends to confirm the bonds of unity between the See of Antioch and that of Rome, the Church that presides in charity, according to the happy expression of Saint Ignatius of Antioch.

In this week, in which our Church remembers Saint John the Baptist, we desire that Pope Francis continue to be a voice that cries out for truth and for the affirmation of justice. We desire that he continue his defense of the cause of Christians in the Middle East, especially the Syro-Antiocheans persecuted in northern Iraq.

I am convinced that this visit will be a source of good and blessing for us, and a touch of consolation for the suffering of our Church.

[Translation by ZENIT]

On ZENIT’s Web page:

Pope’s address to synod:

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Robert Cheaib

Docente di teologia presso varie università tra cui la Pontificia Università Gregoriana e l’Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Svolge attività di conferenziere su varie tematiche che riguardano principalmente la pratica della preghiera, la mistica, l’ateismo, il rapporto tra fede e cultura e la vita di coppia. Gestisce un sito di divulgazione teologica Tra le sue opere recenti: Un Dio umano. Primi passi nella fede cristiana (Edizioni san Paolo 2013); Alla presenza di Dio. Per una spiritualità incarnata (Il pozzo di Giacobbe 2015); Rahamim. Nelle viscere di Dio. Briciole di una teologia della misericordia (Tau Editrice 2015); Il gioco dell'amore. 10 passi verso la felicità di coppia (Tau Editrice 2016); Oltre la morte di Dio. La fede alla prova del dubbio (San Paolo 2017).

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