Saying he represents a “forgotten people,” the leader of one of Catholicism’s oldest branches on Monday implored the United States and Europe to intercede in what he described as the systematic purging of Christians from the Middle East.
Ignatius Youssef III Younan — bishop of the Syriac Catholic Church, one of nearly two dozen Eastern Rite churches in union with the Roman Catholic pope — issued his plea during a press conference at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark.
Younan spoke as scores of world leaders gathered at the United Nations, less than 15 miles away, to find common ground on the most pressing international issues, including the plight of millions of migrants who have fled war, discrimination and economic upheaval.
“We are at a period of destruction, of devastating events that really put our future in jeopardy,” said Younan, a guest of Newark Archbishop John J. Myers. “… My people are endangered. We need a miracle.”
The press briefing came one day after Pope Francis’ departure from Philadelphia following a six-day U.S. trip in which the pontiff repeatedly urged the international community to help those who have fled their homelands.
Christians have long been a tiny minority in the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Younan said, their numbers have been cut by two-thirds or more, primarily in Iraq and Syria.
“I am not talking about a story of the past,” said Younan, who was visiting from Beirut. “I am talking about a catastrophic hate of our people. … Their survival is at stake.”
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Violence, repression and persecution have driven an estimated 600,000 Christians from Iraq, he said. Tens of thousands of more have fled the civil war in Syria amid kidnappings, murders and the destruction of centuries-old Christian holy sites, Younan said.
He laid part of the blame on the rise of the the Islamic State, the terrorist organization also known as ISIS or ISIL.
After seizing the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in August 2014, he said, the group killed or expelled Christians who refused to convert to Islam.
“We were there for centuries,” Younan said. “Now Mosul is empty of its history.”
In Baghdad, the number of active churches has been cut by two-thirds, a consequence of continuing sectarian violence and rising fundamentalism, he said.
“Chaos does not help the minorities,” Younan said. “The Sunni and Shiite majorities, they fight it out. We Christians have no means to defend ourselves.”
He challenged western governments and the United Nations not only to support those who have fled, but to work toward ensuring that those Christians who remain in their homes can continue to do so without threat.
“We really think we have been forgotten by the United States and the European Union,” Younan said. “We feel betrayed. … The Western countries have forgotten their principles.”
Christians who fled have found refuge in Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, as well as in Lebanon and Jordan. Others have crossed through Turkey to reach Europe.
Younan said he fears the Middle East will ultimately be emptied of Christians if influential nations don’t take swift action. Asylum in the United States, he added, is a “last option.”
“We don’t want to leave,” he said.
Myers joined Younan in calling for international action, saying more “can be done and should be done.”
“We are in solidarity with them,” Myers said, adding that Christians from the Middle East would be welcomed by the archdiocese if the U.S. government allows it.
Also present Monday were Yousif Abba, the Syriac Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad; and Yousif Habash, bishop of Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Diocese, based in Bayonne.
The Bayonne diocese is the only Syriac Catholic diocese in North America, serving members of the faith throughout the United States and Canada.
Younan served as bishop of the diocese before Pope Benedict XVI chose him to lead the church, granting him the title Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.
The Syriac Catholic church had an estimated 159,000 followers in the Middle East, India and North America.