SYRIA – Patriarch Younan: the West is complicit in genocide
The Patriarch of Antioch and the Syrian Catholic Church, Ignace Youssif III Younan, had some harsh words to say about Western countries whom he accuses of inciting violence in the Middle East:
“The West is stoking the catastrophic tragedies unfolding before our eyes. We have repeated many times that inciting violence in Syria only leads to chaos; and chaos leads to civil war, or vice versa. Chaos is the greatest enemy of minorities, especially the Christian minority in Syria and in Iraq. “
These forceful words were uttered by someone who has suffered and continues to suffer as he sees his country destroyed while the world remains indifferent. He blames the West which when confronted with reality finds it difficult to accept. Younan criticizes airstrikes as ineffective and says the supposedly Christian West has abandoned the Christian East.
Speaking about the current situation in Syria, he stated that “there is a big difference between government forces – not “regime”, since Syria has a recognized government and is a member of the United Nations – who want to defend their people, and other opposition forces, (rebel or revolutionary as we want to refer to them) which, unfortunately, are destroying the country.
Patriarch Younan recently spent some time in Al-Qaryatain and Palmyra and witnessed the destruction that had taken place in these two cities. He went to Al-Qaryatain because there are two communities and parishes there – Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic. Both churches, especially the Orthodox one, have been extensively damaged. There was also the monastery of St. Elian, now totally destroyed. The small church in Palmyra was also destroyed along with the rectory.
He observed that the international community is now concerned about the archaeological monuments of Palmyra, which are famous throughout the world, but for more than five years, international interest in the innocent victims has been rather limited. What is happening in Aleppo at the moment particularly saddens him very much.
INTERVIEW with Patriarch Younan (translated from the original Italian)
The exodus from Syria poses a very difficult situation. Does your community see any chance of staying there or …?
This is an injustice not only for my community, but for all Syrians. It is true that Christians are a minority. We have suffered persecution, abuse and deaths like others, but we are the weakest. We have no enemies, neither in the state nor among the rebels.
We do not sympathise with those who are destroying our country and murdering its people. At the same time, we consider all those who incited these terrorist gangs and suspected rebels as accomplices since, according to criminal law, anyone who incites murder must also be charged with the crime, and who knows about a crime and does nothing should also suffer punishment.
And so I stated recently during a meeting in Turin, where I spoke about the complicity of Western politicians. Clearly they knew that inciting violence to benefit from oil revenue and arms sales would end up destroying the country.
Soon I will visit Homs [west of Syria] for the ordination of our new bishop. The situation is still holding up there and you can go there because the area is under government control, but the more you approach Aleppo, the more difficult things become. And we do not know what else will happen in the near future.
Faced with this tragedy, our readers are wondering what they can do.
If your dear readers in the West believe that the countries where they live are democratic countries, then you have to raise your voice to tell your governments: you are participating in the genocide of minorities, especially the Christian minority.
Because genocide does not mean only the killing of all members of a community, but also forcing them to flee their country to other parts of the world, uprooting them the homeland of their ancestors and destroying a culture, a society and a religious tradition.
So your readers need to understand that they should not accept what they hear in the mass media or from politicians who abuse their power. It is no longer acceptable or permissible to turn a blind eye to the atrocities that are being allowed in the XXI century. Seeing this indifference saddens us and makes us suffer even more.
Should Putin’s intervention then be acknowledged?
The Russians have been much more serious about helping Syria, which has been divided and battered for so long. It is true: when I went to Palmyra, it was the Russians who defended archaeological sites. What Russia did in September is worth much more than what the West has done in the last two years.
We have another example in Iraq which, according to US and other Western states, is a country that is moving towards democracy. But then, why not help to really put an end to Daesh, the self-styled Islamic State?
For years they have been talking about eliminating this caliphate of terror. In fact, the existing rampant opportunism that exists is now clear. And we Christians are defenseless, we are caught between Daesh and Western opportunism.
Many of our readers did not understand the gesture of Pope Francis to bring 12 Muslims to Rome on his flight back from Greece. They posed this question: people: “We are Christians so why does no one helps us?”
I understand the position of these people and their anxiety, and I understand that there are times when Christian charity is not fully understood. For me, Pope Francis is the Successor of Peter, the leader of the Universal Catholic Church and, urged by the charity of the Gospel, he wanted to show the world that Christianity does not discriminate against anyone because of their 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.
Pope Francis met with the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden. I think the Pope has to say clearly that the policies adopted by Western politicians are absolutely unfair and go against charity and justice. They could have reformed government systems gradually. You cannot export “Western democracy” to countries where there is still an amalgam of religion and state.
This fusion exists in all Middle East countries, except Lebanon, and means you never have a true democracy while this fusion of religion and state continues, because we know that in Islam the Koran is read and interpreted literally. Do not forget that there are Koran verses steeped in violence and inciting violence. And in addition, each group understands these verses as they wish, because there is no ultimate religious authority to prevent them. And so, the result is that we have a self-styled Islamic State which continues to commit atrocities in the name of Islam. They interpret religion as they wish.
Not all Muslims are terrorists, but unfortunately so far most XXI century terrorists are Muslims. We have to ask our fellow Muslims to be vigilant. Personally, I have always said that the speeches in mosques should be calls for coexistence and peace, and not accusations of “infidels” directed against other religions.
On a personal level, what has been the deepest wound during these years of conflict and what has pained you most?
I have lived and suffered the Syrian conflict first hand, because I am originally from the province of Hasaka, north-eastern Syria. A few months ago Daesh invaded the peaceful villages of the Khabur region and forced its inhabitants to flee. They abducted between 300 and 400 people. Some were released, but we still do not know about the rest.
In Iraq, I think the tragedy of believers who have been banished from the plateau of Nineveh is heart rending. They suffered a lot. I was with them in Iraq less than three weeks ago in Erbil, Kurdistan, and visited almost all Kurdistan to meet with the faithful. There, the situation is becoming more tragic. In recent years about 140,000 people have been driven from their homes. We do not know the exact number because many have taken refuge in various 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 plateau of Nineveh and Mosul and of these 11,000 families, there are only 7,000 left. The others have gone to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and have suffered unimaginable hardship over seas and oceans.
In relation to the dilemma of refugees, many Christians declare: “The Church does not help us”. Could you explain how the Church is assisting?
I can understand the humanitarian needs of these refugees who have been expelled and uprooted. On the other hand, we can not forget nor deny that the Church is helping. Churches are not nations or states. We are not able to donate millions to countries. Simply, we are doing everything in our power.
I was in Iraq and I have seen what we are doing there. Obviously, morale is at rock bottom and there is great suffering because, at this point, returning home has become a dream. But I witnessed how the Church is helping refugees to at least maintain a decent life. I visited tents, churches and buildings which gave shelter to refugees. The church works hard. I visited the churches that have been built for prayer, schools and our clinics, where priests and nuns work with the community.
It is true that the Church cannot answer all needs – we are not an oil-rich country or a wealthy European nation but our small contribution meets the needs of thousands of people. In Lebanon, for example, we are distributing humanitarian aid and, two years ago, we opened a school for 850 children (for Iraqi Christians). This school costs us $ 40,000 a month.
We cannot promise the stars and there will always be people who are not satisfied and tell us: “What are you doing to end our ordeal? Why do not you help us to be well received in European countries? “. We never do this, we cannot, because it would empty our countries and our lands of the Christian communities who have lived here for thousands of years.
We are particularly concerned about young people and try to facilitate their access to basic and higher education, but the problem is that they have begun to lose hope in their future. I celebrated Easter with our Syrian and Iraqi Catholic community, on Saturday March 26, in the church that we are renting. We celebrate two Masses, one at 6:00 pm and the other at 8:00 pm. Especially in the last Mass, the church was packed and there were people on the street- most of them young families with children. This is what concerns us most: how can we help them stay with us?
We understand that the Church cannot invite people to leave their countries, 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 with him to Rome. Can the patriarchs of the East not put pressure to allow Christians, who are still a minority in these refugee camps, to leave?
As you know, most of those who have been expelled from their lands, in Iraq for example, have taken refuge in Kurdistan and live in tents, abandoned buildings or rented apartments for which the Church is responsible. So those who remain in their country will never be accepted from outside, although we try to help those who are outside Iraq, in Lebanon or Jordan.
However, we would never ask embassies and consulates to grant them visas to leave the country because it would give very negative publicity and would mean that the Church is encouraging emigration. We’re doing everything we can, but there are cases that are difficult and tragic. But these are issues that the bishops and local clergy have to handle. We can not interfere and say they have to do one thing or the other, because they know the situation better than us.
Are you not able as patriarchs to exert pressure to stop the war?
We need to be pastors and proclaim the truth with charity and should not be like politicians who say that Christians and Muslims in the Middle East have lived together and respected each other for 1400 years.
It is not true; otherwise, how could we be witnessing the decline of the faithful in Christian communities? Even in Turkey, 100 years ago there were hundreds of thousands of Christians, Armenians and Syrians. Now they are gone, so why not tell the truth?
The international community must firmly ask these politicians or those countries not to mix religion and state. Why has the international community not told Saudi Arabia: “You have so much space and so much oil and money. Why don’t you welcome 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 the strategy of Saudi Arabia is not to help these Muslims because, after all, they have other interests …?
But if you Westerners are sincere in your actions, this is what you should say and not “because there is oil, we are the best of allies” and make everyone else believe that the Saudi system of government is better than the Syrian.
There is a senator from Virginia, USA, Dick Black , who traveled to Syria on a three-day visit. He was in Damascus, Homs and Palmyra and he met with President al-Assad and President of Parliament, and said: “What has happened in Syria is not a movement that originated from within, but something dictated from outside.” This is the first elected American who speaks the truth.
Why, in this century, have so many thousands of mercenaries come to this country? Normally, the fighters are from neighboring countries, as in Africa and Asia. But in this case, they come from all over the world and this is proof of this dishonest policy.
We hope that this American politician can echo the message in his country and continue talking about this injustice: hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and millions of refugees driven from their homes. It truly is a great crime, and there are accomplices, not only those who are killing, but also those who pay, finance and incite this situation and they are not being honest.