The future of Christianity in the Middle East remains uncertain, and it is critical that the international community remain engaged, said a Melkite Catholic archbishop from Syria.
Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo delivered these comments during a two-day visit to Connecticut that culminated with meetings at the international headquarters of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven.
The visit began Sunday night with a talk by the archbishop at St. Mary’s Church, where he recounted Syria’s deep Christian history, including as the place where St. Paul was transformed from being a major persecutor of the Christians to becoming one of the Church’s first great missionaries.
“Even from the beginning, these Christians — then called Nazarenes — remained faithful to Christ,” said Jeanbart, who urged his listeners to feel united with “my people,” by sharing the ancient faith that comes from his part of the world, and recalling this unity in the Eucharist.
Speaking to an audience of nearly 400 at the historic New Haven church, the archbishop recalled that persecution has also long been a part of Syrian Catholic history. But now the wealthy city of Aleppo has been left in in “very bad shape,” as a result of genocide and civil war.
“Pray that the Lord may give us a civic state like yours,” said Archbishop Jeanbart. “We need to be like America… free to be Christian, free to be Muslim, free to choose [our faith].”
The archbishop voiced particular thanks to the Knights of Columbus. The Catholic fraternal group has raised $10.5 million to provide housing, food, medical aid, education and general relief for persecuted Christians and other religious minorities through its Christians at Risk website.
“I am grateful to the Knights for all they have done,” said Archbishop Jeanbart in a meeting with Knights of Columbus CEO Carl Anderson and journalists on Monday. “They have given me strength to help large groups of my people.”
In a reference to Secretary of State John Kerry’s March 17 declaration that a genocide is taking place in the region, Archbishop Jeanbart credited the Knights with “pushing your government to make decisions,” and for producing a nearly 300-page report at the request of State Department officials that helped chronicle the underlying evidence for a finding of genocide.
In recent public appearances, including at a conference at the United Nations last week, Anderson has called for the U.N. to refer the claim of genocide to the International Criminal Court, and for the European Parliament and the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom to continue to gather evidence of genocide while also increasing humanitarian assistance in the region.
Drawing a comparison to Nazi atrocities against the Jews during World War II, Anderson said the world may be witnessing a “final solution” in the Middle East that is being waged against the most vulnerable communities in this region, including “the small Christian communities, the Yazidi communities, the Turkmen communities,” and, he added: “we have to make an extra effort to protect them.”
“Are we willing to allow these communities that go back to the time of Christ and the Apostle Paul to be eliminated?” he asked.
He also added a hopeful note, pointing out: “There are people here and in Europe who care and are willing to do something.”
Archbishop Jeanbart also focused on hope. “Things are bad now,” the archbishop said, but emphasized that hope will come in the form of Christians and people of good will who “will help to build a [renewed] Church, a new society, and new country.”
“Thank God, we are living still; I rely on the Lord,” he added.
More information is available at www.christiansatrisk.org.