Do Christians in Iraq and Syria want to stay?

This is a very important question because Iraq has experienced war since 2003. Many there have only ever known war and don’t know what peace is, and so they want to leave because they don’t have the past anymore. In Syria, it’s different. They’ve had war for eight years, but before that, society was very tolerant, multiconfessional and peaceful. So people have a memory of what life was like before the war and want to stay. So it’s completely different: All the Christians in Iraq want to go; in Syria, most Christians want to stay. It’s very interesting. I noticed that when I went to Syria. Before and during the war, they always have had a good relationship with the government and the government respects the Christian communities.

As long as President Bashar Assad is there, they’ll want to stay?

Yes, for eight years they tried to pass a message to the Western world that if there’s a regime change in Syria, Christians will go, as they’ve done in Iraq. That’s why it’s very important to offer humanitarian help but at the same time make people aware in the West about their situation and get their message out to our countries.


Do you think Christians will come back to Iraq?

It’s very difficult to say. For years, Christians have gone down in great numbers, a crazy drop. Also, all Christians I meet there want to go. When I went to a house of Christians, we asked them what they needed. All said, “We need a flight ticket to leave,” but the mission of SOS is to help them to stay, not to go. I think of Benedict XVI, who gave an important principle: Everyone has the right to live in their country because it’s their country.


Will Iraqi Christians keep leaving until they get a leader who protects Christians?

Yes. Their society is completely different from our society; we have to respect that theirs is a tribal society. For traditional societies, religion is very important for everybody; the culture of the leader is very important. That’s why it’s important, above all, we respect that — also the will of the people and the leader they want.


Would you like young Americans to start an SOS in the United States?

Yes, of course. Now we are building an office here in Rome, but maybe in the future other countries can build up something like that so that all countries will have the opportunity to volunteer and send money to these people. These are important things, and maybe networking, contact and hearing the views of others and having conferences in the country [will be included]. We have a lot of problems [that need to be addressed].


Do you see Christians also in the West under threat? We speak of persecuted Christians in the Middle East, but should there be an SOS Chrétiéns d’Orient in the West, too?

Yes, of course; I hope so, because sometimes we talk about persecuted Christians of the Middle East, but this persecution is physical. In the Western world, it is psychological, moral and also a state persecution. It’s also symbolic: forbidding the cross, attacks against the family. So it’s very important to work together. And I think Christians in the East can help Christians in the West to improve and vice versa, because the West isn’t Catholic or Christian anymore [as a culture]; we’re a minority. The West’s ideology is capitalism, consumerism and hedonism. The young who go and help in the Middle East are often traditional Catholics, and this can help a lot: the interaction between cultures to rediscover our identity.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.