By Paula Doyle
Making his first official visit to the Southland since he was elected Jan. 20 as the new patriarch of Antioch and leader of the world’s Syrian Catholics, His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef III Younan said Christians worldwide must unite to advocate for peace and civil rights in the Middle East.
The patriarch spoke with The Tidings July 17 in an interview at the House of Prayer for Priests in Los Angeles, where he was staying while visiting Jesus Sacred Heart Syrian Catholic Church in North Hollywood. He noted nearly 45 percent of the world’s 160,000 Syrian Catholics live outside the Middle East.
Sent to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1986 as a missionary priest to serve Syrian Catholic communities, he founded three parishes, including the first mission of Our Lady of Deliverance in New Jersey; Jesus Sacred Heart in North Hollywood; and Our Mother of Perpetual Help in San Diego. In 1995, John Paul II appointed him the first bishop of the new diocese (eparchy) of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syrian Catholics in the U.S. and Canada.
He has spent the last three-and-a-half weeks visiting the West Coast and East Coast parishes, which are “doing very well,” according to the patriarch. Ministering is “always a missionary task,” in the Middle East as well as in the U.S., he noted.
“Priests have to meet and encourage the people,” stated Patriarch Younan. He said the North Hollywood Syrian Catholic community, headed by Father Yousif Habash, pastor of Jesus Sacred Heart Church, has established deep roots since its founding in 1992. “We have people who consider the church their own and bring their children and grandchildren,” commented the Syrian-born patriarch, whose patriarchal seat is in Beirut, Lebanon.
“We’ve been targeted as churches but also as individuals [including] members of the clergy,” he said. Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul Basil George Casmoussa, who spent 20 hours in captivity after being kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in early 2005, accompanied Patriarch Younan during his Southern California trip.
“Our survival depends on the unity of Christians,” said Patriarch Younan. All Christians in the Middle East, including Catholics, Orthodox and Protestant, “must work together and fulfill our mission of witnessing the Gospel and teaching the Gospel’s call to tolerance, love and peace together — not separately. The elements that unite us are much more than those that [separate] us,” according to the patriarch.
Also, he stressed, “We rely on our brethren in the West to help us stay where we are. Those [Middle Eastern] lands have been the cradle of Christianity. Allowing the emptying of those lands” of a Christian presence would be tragic. He added help is needed from religious and political leaders “to speak truth to fundamentalists and those who abuse the name of God to target othersâ€¦.
“World leaders have to be clear and firm with those regimes and countries who don’t grant all their citizens the same civil rights,” stated Patriarch Younan, who said tension in the region has been building over the past 25 years with rising Islamic fundamentalism as well as the recent Gulf wars which have endangered “defenseless” Christian minorities.
“We need a lot of prayers to help us keep going” as well as aid for Christian social service agencies such as hospitals and orphanages which are open to people of all faiths. “Developing these institutions will do a lot of good to all,” noted the patriarch.