Syriac Catholic Patriarch visits Ottawa

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Leader says West must stop Syrian and Iraq wars so refugees can stay home
By Deborah Gyapong
Caption: Archbishop Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East for the Syrians was in Ottawa over Labour Day weekend on a pastoral visit to Syriac Catholics. Deborah Gyapong (CCN).

The Patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church says the West should end the war in Syria and Iraq so refugees and displaced people can return to their homes instead of having to go into exile.

“We hope everyone is able to stay in his or her homeland,” said Archbishop Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East for the Syrians. Having people living permanently in exile is not a solution, he said in an interview Sept. 7 while making a pastoral visit to Ottawa.

But if the bloody conflict continues, and people see Europe granting refugee status to a few hundred thousand people, more and more people will risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean the way little Aylan Kurdi’s family did, or risk being killed traveling over land, he said.

“Of course to look at that poor little boy with the red shirt washed up on the beach in Turkey, reminded people of what’s going on in Syria,” he said. “It’s a tsunami that has hit the country.”

But until Aylan’s picture went around the world, the suffering in Syria and Iraq caused by Daesh -beheadings, rape and burning of people alive–has received little attention. “The Western world is not only indifferent it is an accomplice in continuing that type of violence and killing,” he said.

More than 100,000 have been killed, millions have fled the country or are living displaced within it, he said. Archbishop Younan blamed the Western nations, especially the United States, Great Britain and France for “fomenting the violence under the pretext of a kind of Arab Spring.” He called it a “na‹ve” approach and “fantasy” that the West was helping “modernized, civilized rebels” opposing dictatorship.

These rebels were supplied with arms, he said. Thus, it is up to the West to take measures to stop Daesh (the Islamic State or ISIS). They must provide soldiers on the ground to stop the fighting. Airstrikes are not enough, he said, because Daesh fighters mingle with civilians, making the risk too great.

There must be pressure to close the borders so jihadis cannot cross through Turkey or other countries to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq, he said.

The Patriarch also pointed out the Gulf States have not taken in any refugees, but are also funding Daesh. He charged the West with intervening on behalf of these states to protect their own interests.
Saudi Arabia, for example, has lots of land and billions of dollars in wealth and could have provided temporary settlement for refugees until they were able to go back to their own land, he said.

Syria was one of the most laicized countries in the region, led by Assad’s Baathist Regime, he said. The Sunni Muslim majority there causes fear among the various minorities: the Alawites, the Yazidis, the Ishmaelis and the Christians, he said. He noted Aylan’s family is Kurdish and Kurds have not been targeted by the Assad Regime. Daesh, however, has been threatening Kurds.

“The conflict here became bloody because of the intervention of Western countries,” he said. Instead the West should have helped those in conflict “to find a way for reconciliation” under the auspices of the United Nations in both Syria and Iraq.

Circumstances for Christians in the region have continued to worsen, to the point of “catastrophe.”

A year ago, Daesh invaded Mosul in Iraq, then the Nineveh plain, forcing 140,000 Christians to flee their ancient homeland for refuge in Kurdistan, he said. “They are in a dire situation, in bad conditions.”

There are now 700,000 families in Kurdistan, he said. The Syriac Church had no churches, no facilities to welcome these people. They have been receiving help from the Chaldean bishop of Erbil. The Christian population around Baghdad has been reduced by two thirds.

In Syria, Christians have been forced to flee ancestral homes in areas northwest of Damascus. Daesh has also moved into the Homs diocese, taking a village near Palmyra where Christians have lived for centuries, before the existence of Islam, he said. Daesh has expanded its domination to 50 per cent of the country.

Aleppo, the city with the largest Christian concentration in Syria, has been besieged for three years, he said. “People are losing hope.”

“At least 50 per cent of Christians have been displaced; 25 per cent have gone into exile and left the country,” he said.

Archbishop Younan asked if there was a place for “honesty in appraising the problem.” He objected to the use of the word “Islamophobia” to silence critics of radical Islam. Phobia does not mean hatred, it means fear, he said, and when people are confronted with the barbarism of Daesh-such as killings, raping, hostage- taking– it is “natural” to feel fear.

His community has been “devastated” by the kidnapping three months ago of Fr. Jacques Mourad, along with 200 Christian families. Local Muslims took them hostage, he said, and then transferred them to Daesh. The priest was rector of St. Elias Monastery, between Homs and Palmyra. It was one of the oldest monasteries in the region. Daesh has leveled it, he said. Fr. Mourad used to care for elderly Muslim women and children while their menfolk “went out for jihad.” They recently heard from the priest that he is still alive and 15 elderly women have been released, he said.

His capturers tried to force Fr. Mourad to convert to Islam if he wished to live, he said. He refused so he was handed over to Daesh invaders.

If you want to build a real, civilized nation, you have to come in line with the 21st Century, and formulate a constitution in line with the United Nations’ human rights charter, he said. Everywhere regimes are aligned with radical Islam, and where there is no separation between faith and public life, you have the “most retrograde” societies, like something “out of the Middle Ages.”