The Register interviews Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan on the increased emigration of Christians from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
For Syriac Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and all the East Ignatius Joseph III Younan, the exodus of Christians from the Middle East continues to be a grave concern.
The Christian population in Syria has dwindled due to the conflict, starting almost 12 years ago. In Iraq, more than 100,000 Christians, mostly Syriac Catholics, were uprooted from ancestral homes in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain in the summer of 2014.
Now, Lebanon is in the throes of a catastrophic economic collapse that the World Bank has labeled as one of the world’s worst since the 1850s. Since late 2019, the Lebanese currency has been devalued by more than 90%. According to the United Nations, 78% of Lebanese now live below the poverty line in the formerly middle-class country.
Patriarch Younan spoke with Register correspondent Doreen Abi Raad from the patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon, of the critical situation of Christians in the region.
“We fear for the coming years,” he said.
Born in Hassakeh, Syria, Patriarch Younan’s parents were survivors of genocide, when, as little children, they had fled to Syria from southeast Turkey with their mothers in 1918. In 1986, he was sent to the United States to establish a mission for Syriac Catholics and in 1995 was appointed bishop of the new Syriac Catholic diocese in Newark, New Jersey, created by John Paul II. He served in the United States until he was elected by the Syriac Catholic Synod held in Rome on Jan. 20, 2009, as patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church. In 2021, he celebrated his priestly golden jubilee and episcopal silver jubilee.
Your Beatitude, you have visited Syria, most recently in December, including a visit to your birthplace, Hassakeh. Your visit in the spring of 2021 also included Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. What is the reality of security and how people are living their day-to-day lives? What are your frustrations regarding Syria, and what are your hopes for the coming year?
I did visit, in December, my birthplace, the province of Hassakeh (which borders Turkey and Iraq), and for a week I toured the major towns like Hassakeh, Qamishli, al-Darbasiya and Amuda.
It was a very sad situation we encountered. That province was built by Christian refugees from Turkey 100 years ago, who fled southeast Turkey. They developed the agriculture industry, especially for wheat. Christians believed that they were safe, and they stayed and built that province.
It’s very sad to say that now they’ve been reduced to a small minority: first, because of the oppression by some fanatics since the start of the Syrian turmoil almost 12 years ago; and, since 2014-2015, when the terrorists invaded and attacked Christian villages at the Khabur River and killed and eradicated almost all the Christians of those villages, mostly all from the Assyrian Church [officially the Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East].
I encountered an Assryian priest serving in that area. He told me that he’s now the only priest and that he has no more than 300 families in Tal Tamar. Churches have been destroyed; houses have been occupied by foreigners. It’s a very bad situation.
In the cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh, the situation is really tragic because those two largest cities in the province are divided into, let’s say, security zones in the same city. For instance, on the main street in Hassakeh, one side is controlled by the regular Syrian police, the other side by the Kurdish militias.
Some people, from all denominations, try to flee, either to Kurdistan, Iraq or up north to Turkey. Those who go to Turkey are mostly Muslim. Christians try to go to Kurdistan.
In Qamishli, the Kurdish militia controls most of the city. Now, the only way to travel outside that province is by plane from the airport of Qamishli, which is now, let’s say, controlled or protected by Russian soldiers to keep it open.
It’s very sad. The Christians try to cope with the situation, but it’s very, very difficult. We have tried to inspire courage and hope, but it’s not so easy.
Other parts of Syria, such as Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, are relatively under safe control of the government. We can’t ignore that there was a big exodus of Christians from Syria because of this tumultuous, violent war in Syria — a sectarian war, mostly — and because of the sanctions, the so-called Caesar law, and because of the geopolitical interests of the mighty nations. It’s very sad. It’s the people who suffer.
The sanctions have made the life of Syrians so miserable. There is a horrible scarcity of food, medicine, electricity and fuel for heating, mostly during the present harsh winter. Their impact is exceptionally dramatic on young people who become desperate.
I, like the other patriarchs, we are very disappointed by the Western countries’ handling of the situation for the past 12 years.
And I repeat, wherever I go, that we Christians in the Middle East have not only been abandoned by the West, but also betrayed. Christians suffer because of the threat to the very existence of Christian communities, Christian churches dating from the apostolic times.
How would you describe the crisis in Lebanon? What do you fear will happen? What does Lebanon need to revive? What is your hope for Lebanon, especially in the coming year, with the parliamentary elections in May and the election of a new president in October?
We never could have imagined this catastrophic situation would happen in Lebanon. After the tragic situations in Iraq and Syria, now it’s Lebanon, this tiny beautiful country of less than 5,000 square miles.
The devaluation of the Lebanese currency is catastrophic. Our middle-class population is almost disappearing. Young families, and particularly educated young people, don’t have any trust in the future, and therefore they try to leave. It’s very, very sad, to say that. Christians already have been becoming a minority, and we can’t convince our young families, our youth, to stay rooted in Lebanon.
We try to help them, in the humanitarian field, with assistance, medical assistance, school tuitions, in order to convince them to stay, but it is not easy for them to live this kind of life for the past three years. It’s horrific.
The economic situation is very bad because of the lack of honesty of transparency in handling financial issues. But the situation will get worse if there is no real firm intervention to help Lebanon restore its capacities of running itself.
Of course, the Lebanese are also responsible for what’s happening. But because of regional and international interferences, and because of the ongoing situation of the Arab-Israeli conflict and also because of the crisis in Syria, Lebanon has been, let’s say, forgotten or neglected.
We need for Lebanon to remain independent. For that, we need the strong, firm intervention of the world: the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and Russia. To defend Lebanon means defending its multicultural, multireligious living together. Lebanon is a real symbol of the multicultural, multireligious system.
Also, there are now over 2 million refugees in this tiny land. That means at least 30% of its population are refugees (Syrian and Palestinian). There is the risk of using them for geopolitical goals or to create a kind of insecurity in Lebanon.
We hope there is a real possibility that the next elections will open some horizon of reestablishing Lebanon.
How is the situation in Iraq now, and what are the fruits of the Apostolic visit of Pope Francis in March 2021?
In general, the situation is getting better. Security is more manifest in most of the regions, areas in Iraq. However, there are still bands of terrorists, takfirists who try to create a climate of terror. There were parliamentary elections last year, and we hope that with the help of the international nations — those who are very much interested in peace in Iraq — they will find a better way to restore either the safety, or construction, or in helping those who have been refugees for years living in camps.
Despite that their numbers are dwindling and have been very much reduced, Christians who stay are more hopeful for a better future in Iraq.
We have four dioceses in Iraq. I have been visiting Iraq many times; the last visit was to Basra, in southern Iraq, where there’s a very tiny presence of Christians still left. At one time, it was a flourishing city, with flourishing Christian communities, well-educated people. We try always to inspire hope and strengthen the faith of our Christian communities.
As the Holy Father told the Iraqis last year: Be hopeful, to join together, to respect each other and to be makers of peace and to live the virtue of real fraternal charity.
We hope that, with peace, with reconciliation of all confessions, something will be done to really help Iraq be restored.
What are the pastoral challenges for the Syriac Catholic Church in meeting the needs of the faithful in the countries of emigration?
All Christian communities of Eastern Churches have been experiencing the exodus of their faithful. In Iraq, beginning mostly since the first Gulf War in 1991 and after the creation of the fundamentalist, takfirist ISIS in 2010, with the attack on our cathedral in Baghdad (Our Lady of Salvation), and in 2014 with the ISIS invasion in Mosul and surrounding areas and the rooting out of Christians — mostly Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic — from the Ninevah Plain, that had very much reduced the number of Christians.
Likewise, the issue of emigration in Syria, and now in Lebanon: Most of the Christians now live in the diaspora, the church of extension. For us Syriac Catholics, at least 60% already left, mostly to Western countries: the Americas, Western Europe and Australia. And we fear for the coming years.
We try our best to follow the emigrating people with our Syriac clergy ministering to them, in order that they preserve their Catholic faith and heritage.
To give just one example, until around four years ago, we had around seven priests serving our Syriac-Catholic communities in Western Europe. Now, there are 24 priests.
That means the exodus is getting larger, and it’s more urgent to send, appoint priests to serve our communities. It is a great loss for us because most of our faithful don’t return [to their homeland], as they know the situation is very chaotic.
All the churches [rites] in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq are facing this very sad, critical situation of the exodus of our communities. Of course, we respect the freedom of all, because they know much better than us what is good for their families, for their future, but it’s very sad. We have to encourage Christians to keep rooted in their land.
Our forefathers have endured a lot, not just oppressions and persecutions, but these times are very sad.
You had a private meeting with Pope Francis on Jan. 12. Can you share the highlights of your meeting and what impressed you the most regarding what the Holy Father said to you?
Every time I meet with the Holy Father it is a time of grace for me as well as for my Church. We spoke about the situation of Christians in general in the Middle East.
We spoke about the need for following up with our Christian communities who leave their country to go to Western countries looking for human dignity and religious freedom and for the future of their children and family.
The Holy Father, as spiritual head of the Church and also as head of state of the Vatican, tries to remind not only governments, but also Christians, to work for peace and real togetherness in the sense of fraternity.
Of course, we also discussed the topic of how to follow our Church community in the West, mostly in Europe, like what was done in the United States and Canada and Venezuela, having our own Church canonical authority for the sake of our people.
In Western Europe, our clergy and faithful have to follow the directives of local Latin bishops, and we don’t have ecclesial jurisdictions. This is a challenge because we need to help our clergy and our priests and our communities to really live their faith and their liturgical traditions freely, while integrating in the countries to which they have emigrated.
We need — like it is done with the Orthodox Churches — a kind of freedom to establish jurisdictions. We don’t need bishops, but at least we need an exarch, that means a church nominee, to take care of our Syriac-Catholic missions in the West.
As a member of the advisory council for the Synod on Synodality, what do you consider as the unique concerns and challenges for the Eastern Rite Churches?
The Eastern Churches have known synods for a long time, as meetings of the bishops aimed at the study of faith, ethic or governance issues in a patriarchal or national Church. The participating members usually have the right to legislate and make decisions.
The Roman Synod of Bishops was instituted by Pope Paul VI more than 50 years ago. The next synod of the Catholic Church called by Pope Francis, with the title “The Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission” will involve the whole ecclesial community, which is surely a challenge to Eastern Churches, mostly the Orthodox. Not all baptized are able to understand the synodal walking together in the spiritual communion in the Church as the Body of Christ. It is quite different from what some people think as sharing equal rights in decision-making, either in the doctrine of faith, ethic [issues] or the governance within the dioceses.
Congratulations, Your Beatitude. You have been a priest for a full 50 years now and a bishop for 25 years. What is the level of vocations in the Syriac Catholic Church?
Our patriarchal seminary here in Charfet has more numbers than the past years. We try to encourage and urge our parishes, our dioceses, to work on vocations.
However, emigration affects religious vocations because most of the families emigrating must apply together to get the permit, the visas to go abroad, and the young people, either young men or young women, are more tempted to stay with their families, with their parents, in order to leave. Because of this phenomenon of emigration, we could not really have more vocations for the priesthood and religious life.
What words of advice would you have for a new bishop?
Not only advice, but a conviction that we are called to serve, to witness to Jesus’ love wherever we are, and to live in simplicity and humility.
When we are at this post of leadership, we have to be humble, and we have to remember that whatever we do, we have to say we are not doing enough. We all get this call as a gift from God. We have to dedicate ourselves completely, living the spirit of the Good Shepherd in giving ourselves in simplicity, in humility and in trying to be very close to our people.
What can Christians in the West do to help the Christians in the Middle East?
We are so grateful to so many Christians, Catholics in the West who feel with us the sufferings we are enduring and who help us with humanitarian assistance. We are so grateful.
We always remember their Christian charity and humanitarian assistance. However, we still need their political input, with their elected officials, to uphold the civil and religious rights of Christian communities in the Middle East, which is an inalienable condition for their survival.
We keep going on with hope. Jesus is our hope.