Despite hopes otherwise, Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan warns that one of the oldest Christian Churches’ survival is being threatened in Syria and Iraq, and has appealed for Christian people in the Middle East’s rights to be defended.
The Patriarch of Antioch for Syriac Catholic Church, who leads some 200,000 Syriac Catholics worldwide, stressed this to Zenit as he clarified that making progress is challenging in a region that ‘is hostile to all civil progress.’
According to the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need, some 200 million Christians worldwide cannot practice their faith with total freedom. In 38 countries, there is reported evidence of religious freedom violations.
In the Middle East, In the birthplace of Christianity, the Middle East, Christians have lived for some 2000 years. However, after these some 15 years of persecutions, from constituting 20 percent of the population a century ago, they now constitute less than 4 percent. Christians have suffered a real genocide at the hands of terror groups like Daesh (ISIS); they have lost their homes, jobs and even their lives. Thousands of Christians have been forced to flee and become displaced or refugees. Christians are not the only minority being discriminated against in this region, but also other religious minorities, and feel constantly threatened by fundamentalism.
The Syrian-born Patriarch, who is based in Lebanon (known for being one of the most active safe havens, for all those being forced to flee from the Middle East), and who served for more than 10 years in the United States, specifically as the first bishop of the New Jersey-based Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics of the United States, expressed the gravity of this reality.
Patriarch Younan provided to Zenit his Christmas message for his people in the Middle East and dispersed around the world after the diaspora. In the message, he stressed that as we contemplate the Divine Child of Bethlehem, we deepen our faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ and strive to live His message of Love and Peace. God so loved us that He became one of us to lift us up to Him, he reminded.
Solidarity & Prayer Needed
The message of Christmas Night brought down by the angel to the humble shepherds of Bethlehem, the leader of the Syriac Catholic Church reminded, still resonates year after year in our heart, as a message of peace, joy and reconciliation. “Saint James of Sarug (5th-6th century) one among the greatest fathers of the Syriac Church, gave us this following hymn: ‘Glory to the Father who sent His Word to become flesh, adoration to the Son who, though unlimited, became limited in a manger and thanksgiving to the Spirit who chanted in the mouth of the angels: Glory in the highest and peace on earth.’”
“From the Middle East, where your Christian brothers and sisters are still enduring a lot of hardship because of the ongoing violent tribulations that undermine their future,” Patriarch Younan pointed out, “I want to remind you how much we need your solidarity and prayer.”
Lebanon, the only country of the Middle-East where all citizens enjoy the best possible liberty and equality, he also noted, had to face in the past year a lot of trials.
“Pope John Paul II had rightly called this tiny nation: ‘Lebanon is more than a country, it is a mission,’ he said, noting: “We surely thank God that the Lebanese army could finally overcome the terrorist bands that were threatening its very existence. Given the wisdom of the President of the Republic, we keep praying that Lebanon will reach the haven of peace, to fulfill its great mission in the region.”
“During this joyful season,” the leader of the Syriac Catholics reminded, “our thoughts and prayers will particularly go to our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, who have been suffering for long, because of their steadfast faithfulness to the Gospel.”
Shepherds Will Continue to Cry for World Powers to Defend Persecuted Minorities’ Rights
He recalled that Pope Francis in his Message for the 51st World Day of Peace 2018 wrote: ‘In a spirit of compassion, let us embrace all those fleeing from war and hunger, or forced by discrimination, persecution, poverty and environmental degradation to leave their homelands.’
“We, as the shepherds of the flock,” the Patriarch continued, “will keep speaking up as John the Baptist, ‘crying loud in the wilderness’ to defend the human rights of our Christian people in the Middle East, pleading with the world civil and political [leaders], for justice and liberty for them and for all persecuted minorities.”
Turning to Iraq specifically, he noted that after many years of being savagely uprooted from their homeland in the Plain of Nineveh in Iraq, forced into exile and scattered in many countries, many thousands of our Syriac families have now the unique opportunity to return home.
Presence of Christians Needed for Rebirth of Country
“The terrorist bands are now mostly defeated and hope has risen that at least a good percentage of those who were forced to leave would return home. Their presence as Christian minority, the truly indigenous people, that endured every kind of hardship is essential to the rebirth of their country.”
“We have to keep hoping that the local governments and the international community will definitely expel the terrorists and restore peace and security in order to rebuild one reunified Iraq that insures justice and equality for all its citizens.”
Violent upheaval in Syria, the Patriarch asserted, “happened to be not only a ‘wrong reading’ of the nature of this country, but also a dangerous agglomerate alliance threatening the very existence of this nation, known to be a cradle of the Christian faith.”
In the name of the “so called ‘democracy,'” Patriarch Younan reminded, hundreds of thousands were killed, millions were uprooted and the land destroyed.
“Western politicians allied with regional countries known to be among the most undemocratic and retrograde regimes, kept fomenting sectarian conflicts and financing bands of terrorists in the name of Allah. Christian communities with other minorities were the easiest target of the radical jihad.”
“Economic sanctions on Syria must be lifted,” he appealed, “They are like crimes against humanity because they target the most vulnerable segments of a nation. Poor and defenseless people are the ones who pay the price. The family of nations must look for other ways to deal with a legitimate country recognized by the United Nations, even if this government happened to be taxed by some country or organization, as an outlaw regime.”
“Jesus words are for us a beacon that guides our lives” he encouraged. “We cherish to repeat to you what the Lord used to say to his disciples: ‘Do not be afraid, little flock!’ Yes, Lord, as long as you walk with us, there is nothing to fear of and nothing will be able to separate us from you!”
Patriarch Younan’s message concluded, imparting on all his faithful his Apostolic Blessing.
On Zenit’s Web page:
Excerpts of Patriarch Yonan’s Christmas message: