(Vatican Radio) While issues of everyday concern to families are on the agenda at the extraordinary Synod on the Family, one participant has come to Rome with a very sinister tale to tell. It’s the plight of tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian families who fled for their lives to escape from Islamic State militants. Few think they will ever return home. That’s according to Archbishop Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East of the Syriac Catholic Church who was eager to speak to Vatican Radio outside the Synod hall. He wanted to raise global awareness about the desperate conditions in which his people are now living in northern Iraq.
Listen to the interview with Patriarch Younan in this program by Tracey McClure:
“The situation is disastrous for our communities in northern Iraq,” says Patriarch Younan. “Our people in northern Iraq, especially the Syriac Catholic people,” he says, “have been really hit by the …fanaticism, jihadism of the so-called Islamic State.” Islamic State militants have swept through large swathes of Iraqi territory, threatening Christians and other minorities to convert to their extreme brand of Islam, pay a special tax or die.
Patriarch Younan explains that Syriac Catholics were the largest Christian community caught up in the jihadi violence: “over 70,000 Syriac Catholics have been uprooted. And that means over two-thirds, if not three quarters of our numbers in all Iraq - they have been displaced and they have nowhere to go. And that means (now) we only have the Church in Baghdad. And this is also experiencing a lot of pressures.” He explains that even though it “does not have the means,” the Baghdad Church is taking in many Christian families who are trying desperately to get out of the country.
“It’s a disastrous situation for families and children, and also for our parishes” he says with dismay. “We don’t know what to do with our people, especially the young… leaving them in that kind of limbo – no hope for the future.”
The other community of our Syriac Catholics, he adds, used to live in Syria: “between 35,000 - 40,000 of Syriac Catholics were in the fourth diocese in Syria. Now (they) also are facing a…dangerous threat to… survival there. The largest two dioceses were Homs and Aleppo and those two dioceses have been very badly hit.”
20 October Consistory a chance to press for peace, support Mideast Christians
Pope Francis, who has been following developments in the region with concern, has invited the leaders of Catholic Churches of the Middle East to participate in the upcoming 20 October Consistory in the Vatican. Patriarch Younan will be among them. “Now our people in northern Iraq are facing a kind of genocide - that means extermination. They have been uprooted of their lands and I am very sad to say we have not yet any hope that they will be able to return. And if they return, who is going to guarantee the security for them?”
Patriarch Younan says at the Consistory, he and the other Patriarchs will urge the Holy Father and the Cardinals to use every asset at the Church’s disposal, including its media, diplomatic relations and moral authority, to press for a cessation of violence and to advocate on behalf of the region’s Christians.
He says the Church must challenge “those who are powerful on the international scene…to apply their principles for democracy through (ensuring) religious liberties on the ground – not (just) in speeches and press conferences and articles.”
Will coalition airstrikes stop Islamic State?
Asked if the international coalition’s campaign of airstrikes on Islamic State is enough to stop the jihadists’ advance, the Patriarch responds “We can’t say it doesn’t work, but how long (will it take)?” How effective will it be? he asks. The Patriarch observes that while the U.S. administration and Nato say “it will take time,” he suggests help has come too late and that time is running out for the refugees who need humanitarian assistance and some hope of returning home. “The international coalition intervention is meant not to help those defenseless minorities like Christians and Yazidis (and others),” he argues. Rather, he alleges the region has become the pawn of a “geopolitical strategy” of “economic opportunism.”
Education and its role in the Jihadi mindset
Meanwhile, the number of extremists joining the ranks of the jihadists appears to be growing as Islamic State continues to gain territory in Iraq and Syria. “We know very well that this kind of radical: the extremists, the jihadists, they are growing; they’re joined by many jihadists around the world – not only from countries where you have a majority of Muslims, but also from the West, from the East … and this will be very dangerous for our existence in Mesopotamia, especially northern Iraq.”
Archbishop Younan, whose Patriarchate is based in Beirut, enjoys cordial relations with Muslim religious leaders in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region. Asked how education plays a part in the jihadi scenario, he says “It’s quite normal that we ask our brethren of Muslim religion to look at the formation of their youth, especially to be careful about their religious speeches in mosques or in their schools. And this is something which is very, very important… To people, they (seem) silent and they don’t have the courage to stand up to those radical groups and to those who preach hatred and intolerance. Of course, we have to tell them and we keep telling them. In Lebanon for instance, when we meet with the Muslim sheikhs, either Sunni or Shiites, we keep… discussing this topic very often. And we hope that there will be a day they will understand that in their religion, they have to find the positive aspects of their relation between men and God and not focus on those verses that spread violence, hatred and discrimination against non-Muslims.”
Lebanon: a model of coexistence for Middle East?
Lebanon, a country home to 17 different confessions, has been often cited – despite periods of instability - as a model for coexistence between people of different faiths. “This is right!” exclaims the Patriarch. “In all countries of the region, especially where you have a Muslim majority that rules the country, you have no separation of religion and state. And that means, you have always discrimination against the non-Muslims who are a minority. Except in Lebanon. This is quite a model for the whole region. And thanks God you have equality of rights for all citizens in Lebanon. And we wish, and we try to spread the word that the Arabic countries, and those of Muslim majority have to follow up with this example and also to apply seriously and honestly, the U.N. human rights charter of 1948.”
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