Patriarch pleads for help to stop Christian ‘genocide’ in Iraq

By Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
Syriac Archbishop Ignatius Joseph III Younan.
OTTAWA – The head of the Syriac Catholic Church is pleading for Western nations to intervene immediately with diplomatic and political clout to save the Middle East’s ancient Christian communities as they face “a kind of genocide.”

“It’s a question of our survival,” said Archbishop Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East for the Syrians.

The Lebanon-based Patriarch has been touring Europe and North America and appealing for international intervention to defend the human rights of Christians in the “cradle” of Christianity, particularly in Iraq and Syria.

In Iraq, the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is forcing Christians to convert to Islam or pay a special tax. According to some estimates, up to 1,500 people were killed in July and thousands fled their homes in northern Iraq.

Iraq was thrown into crisis after thousands of armed members of ISIS advanced into northern Iraq from Syria, killing both Muslims and Christians, according to a Catholic News Service report. On June 29, the Islamists proclaimed a “caliphate,” an Islamic state led by a religious leader, across the territories they had captured, including the city of Mosul, Iraq’s ancient Christian heartland.

Younan is imploring the West to do what it can to prevent terrorist attacks orchestrated by organized groups “financed by many countries around the world, especially in the region,” he said. He calls this a “voice of alarm for our survival” to protect the voiceless and defenceless in the region.

While grateful for humanitarian aid, the Patriarch said the West must pressure countries that fund ISIS, mainly Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates and Turkey.

“This is not only in Syria or Lebanon or Iraq, but it seems that in the whole international scene,” he said. “And this is for us the biggest threat to our survival, because we are the vulnerable component. We have no militias to defend us. We don’t have a region where Christian communities can live.”

Christians have lived for millennia in these countries as ordinary citizens but it has been difficult to rally support for his people, Younan said.

“We don’t have the oil,” he said. “We don’t have the numbers and we don’t represent any threat to the nations of the Western sphere as others do. And therefore, they don’t care about us.”

He appealed to the consciences of Western leaders and the media.

“It is time you stand up for freedom, especially religious freedom” of Christian communities fighting for survival, he said. “It’s a kind of genocide, what’s happening in Iraq,” he said. “Where are you now to help us survive?”

The Patriarch was joined in Ottawa by the North American Syriac Eparch Archbishop Yousif Habash, Baghdad Bishop Youssef Abba and Mosul Bishop-emeritus Basile Georges Casmoussa, who now works for the Patriarchal Curia in Europe. As shepherds of the flock, Younan said they have “a very tough decision to make.”

Telling Christians to leave means further weakening the Christian presence in the region, he said. Telling them to stay means they will be targeted for their faith.

“We pray for them and we encourage them to keep the hope,” he said. “This is our mission and vocation, our calling in the Middle East for so many years. We have to also assure them that the civilized world is with them.”

Younan said they have some hope “because there are surely some moderates among Muslims, especially among Shiites.”

“It’s not really sure if the religious leaders, especially amongst Sunnis, are ready to condemn and to do something (to avoid) more massacres and genocide,” he said. “We tell them in Lebanon you have to get together and issue a kind of clear statement that what is done to Christians in the Middle East is not accepted by your religion.”