Beirut, Lebanon, Feb 25, 2017 / 12:06 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Syriac-Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan has said that the number of youth wanting to leave the Middle East is a major concern, and stressed that if local Christians are going to stay, political agendas must be set aside.
“We hope that peace, reconciliation and stability will be realized as soon as possible,” the patriarch said Feb. 23. The problem is that there are geopolitical agendas that don’t involve us.” Their greatest concern is “how to convince our people to return to their homelands,” he said, adding that “this goes above all for the youth...our youth are losing the virtue of hope.”
Head of the Syriac-Catholic Church of Antioch, Younan, who is based in Lebanon, spoke at the presentation of the project “Stand Together,” a digital ecumenical platform aimed at promoting religious freedom and drawing attention to persecuted Christians, particularly those from the Middle East. The event was held at the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See. Among the partners sponsoring the initiative were Communion and Liberation, Rome Reports and the ISCOM association.
In comments to journalists, Patriarch Younan said that if Christians are to stay in the Middle East, “a welcoming, peaceful environment must be created for them so that they can return.” If they have gone abroad, “it means that they are threatened, persecuted or are truly in straights for everything: they no longer have anything.”
In the summer of 2014 some 100,000 people were forced to flee when ISIS stormed their homes and villages, demanding that Christians either convert to Islam, pay a hefty tax or face death. According to a recent U.N. report, between January 2014 and October 2015, at least 18,802 civilians were killed in Iraq. About half of them died in Baghdad province. Another 36,000 were injured. Another 3.2 million people were internally displaced, include about 1 million school-aged children. In addition, millions more have fled to surrounding countries and are currently living as refugees.
Younan said that when he visited Christians displaced from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain after they first fled, he spoke with the Kurdish president, who told him that within a matter of months or even weeks, his people would be back in their villages with the Kurdish Peshmerga army to protect them. “Two and a half years have passed” since that conversation, the patriarch said, explaining that during a November visit to the Christian villages in Iraq recently liberated from ISIS, “half of the houses were torched, the churches burned.”
Faced with the situation, Younan said his people ask “how can we return if there is no stability, without a strong governing presence?” The burning of their houses and churches, he said, was as if ISIS were telling Christians “you won’t ever come back, we don’t want you.”
The patriarch sympathized with their concerns, admitting that if that he himself had a family with children, “I would not return.” Another big problem for those who have fled to other countries, such as Lebanon, is the fact that frequently they are not given refugee status, he said, explaining that these people know they will “not ever be accepted as Lebanese,” and so try to move abroad to Australia, Canada, the United States and Sweden.
When asked what can be done to help Christians to stay rather than moving abroad, the patriarch said the world has to avoid letting individual countries go there “to negotiate in order to have greater advantages in trade.” Local Christians will never be able to be protagonists of change in their home countries because they are such a small minority. Pointing to Egypt as an example, he noted that only 8-10 million of the 80 million people living there are Coptic Christians, and mosques frequently control the elections.
“We try to live in peace with the others but we need stronger interventions on the part of the family of nations to say to these peoples: ‘Live in the 21st century, not the 7th,’” he said. “There must be a unified approach.” Younan also commented on Pope Francis’ frequent declaration that “no religion is terrorist.” When asked if he agreed this declaration also applies to Islam, the patriarch said that “it’s they who have to prove this, it’s not up to me or the Pope to say it.”
In general “relations with Islamic religious heads are good,” he said, but added that for him, this is only at the “politico-diplomatic level, to not say that there is fanaticism.” “We meet, we speak in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, but the important thing is that we can’t do more, we are oppressed by a fundamentalism radical Islam that receives funding,” he said, voicing his hope “that Europe reawakens and finds an adequate solution.”
Referring to Pope Francis’ May 23, 2016, meeting with Imam Ahmed al Tayyeb of the prestigious Al-Azhar mosque at the Vatican, Younan called the move “a diplomatic step,” but said he would have representatives at a special Feb. 24 seminar at the Al-Azhar University on countering religious justification for violence. He said that representatives from his Church have been to the university — widely considered one of the most authoritative voices in Sunni Islam — several times, and that with the joint-seminar with the Vatican they “want to make the world see that they are open.”
However, he also said there are still problems in the educational system of the university, including lessons in which youth use verses of the Koran that endorse violence “as they are.” “Some are tolerant, others much less,” he said, noting that the two men who killed French priest Jacques Hamel in July 2016, didn’t know the priest, but murdered him “because they were formed like this.” “It’s there that we need to intervene,” he said, explaining that while the seminar is a step, “Azhar must reform itself.”
When it comes to Vatican diplomacy, the patriarch said they are already doing a lot to intervene in the crisis in the Middle East, “but it’s not enough.” He recalled that during the 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family he urged the Vatican to speak with officials in the U.S. government, in the U.N. and with the foreign ministers in China, Russia and the E.U., telling them that the ancient Christian communities in the region “run the risk of disappearing.”
The primary message that needs to be conveyed is that “you must do something and enough with your own interests please,” he said, but added that so far, “nothing has been done.” When asked if there was talk of Pope Francis visiting Kurdistan, Younan said that the proposal has been made by several bishops, but nothing is confirmed yet. However, Younan said that while “will be very happy to have the visit of the Holy Father” if he does go, what they really want are “the facts that can reassure our people.”