Syriac Orthodox priest speaks of Christian exodus from Middle East

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CB Condez
(REUTERS/Rodi Said)Displaced people, fleeing violence from the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate on Aug. 11, 2014.

A Syriac Orthodox priest is witness to the exodus of Christians from the Middle East. After spending 30 years primarily in Northern Iraq, Northern Syria and Turkey, he now works as a monk, helping refugees in camps in Germany.

In an interview with Christian Today, Father Dale Johnson said, “I am constantly amazed at how tough they are, and yet as I interview them, they often admit to having nightmares. They are wounded, physically and spiritually, and are carrying with them suffering that isn’t visible on the surface.”

In order to help, he established “Seeds of Hope,” an initiative that gives refugees land, seeds, and gardening tools so they could grow their own vegetables. Some monasteries have offered land, and the project has already been launched in Dahuk and southern Turkey, and people at the Midyat refugee camp have also been invited to join.

However, Johnson is just as concerned for those who were left behind, specifically the disabled, the old people, and those who have neither funds nor means to leave their homes for a safer place to stay.

“They’re the most needy,” he said. “We’re only doing half our job if we just serve the refugees who are strong enough to get here. I believe it’s our moral obligation that for every person to arrive here in diaspora, to help at least one other who’s back in the Middle East.”

He also praised the monks and priests who have opted to stay in their posts — some with only one or two left in a church or village — even while their flocks have fled. It would be great a loss if they leave behind the cultural icons that depict the history of Christianity. One such place mentioned in the interview is the Gabrial Monastery built in 327.

“There’s a dawning realisation among many Syriac Orthodox Christians that if this last remnant leaves, that is the end,” he said. “There’s a very strong sense of that, so much so that it’s caused some of the people in southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and northern Syria to say maybe we shouldn’t leave, even if we can, maybe we should stay – we’re the last ones.”

According Aleppo’s Chaldean Catholic bishop Antoine Audo, there are only about 500,000 Christians left in Syria. The Economist, meanwhile, reported that the number of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa has declined to 4 percent from 14 percent in 1910.