The Syriac Catholic patriarch, following a six-day pastoral visit to northeastern Syria, said he witnessed “a most painful situation in which the lack of water and electricity and the devaluation of the national currency creates living conditions that are truly unbearable.”
From the patriarchate in Beirut, Lebanon, Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan visited the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Hassakeh and Nisibin in early December.
“It was a visit full of sadness, distress as well as of challenges of hope, for a community whose ‘Way of the Cross’ has continued for 12 years,” Patriarch Younan told the Register.
Due to the currency devaluation, the average family barely has a monthly income of $30, he said.
“But the most painful finding was the absence of young people in parishes and pastoral centers, which were the places most frequented by young people,” the Syriac Catholic patriarch said of the massive emigration of youth.
“The horrors of war and lack of work have created a horrific vacuum of young people. For our already very small Christian communities, this poses a most dangerous challenge for our survival in the native land for millennia,” he said.
Born in Hassakeh, Patriarch Younan’s parents were survivors of genocide when, as little children, they fled to Syria from Southeast Turkey with their mothers in 1918.
He established and led the Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada from 1986 until 2009, when he assumed his role as patriarch.
The head of the Syriac Catholic Church lamented the dramatic decline of the Christian presence in his homeland diocese.
“When I was a young priest in the 1970s, the Christian community in northeastern Syria — all refugees from the Ottoman Empire — represented more than a third of the population, numbering some 100,000 people. At present, there are less than 20,000, as most of them were forced by IS [or ISIS] terrorist gangs and the flowing chaos to flee, either inside Syria or across the border,” Patriarch Younan told the Register.
While the Diocese of Hassakeh and Nisibin was the largest for the Syriac Orthodox church in the entire Middle East, for Syriac Catholics, that diocese had a bishop and 11 priests prior to the war. Now, there are just two priests and a bishop.
During his visit, Patriarch Younan celebrated the enthronement and installation of Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacob Joseph Shimei, at Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Hassake.
In his homily, Patriarch Younan decried:
“Beloved Syria is suffering more than any country has ever suffered in this present time!” adding, “Twelve years of torment is enough for us!”
“It is enough for us to displace our sons and daughters to different countries across the seas and oceans! It is enough for us to live hardship, and enough for us to worry about the future!” he continued.
Patriarch Younan stressed to the faithful that “we will always strive to convey your voice to the whole world, that you are a people who deserve to live in dignity, a people who are descendants of ancient, internationally known civilizations.”
The patriarch affirmed in his homily that “we will always remain the voice crying out in your name and calling for the removal of unjust sanctions against our beloved country Syria, because these sanctions affect first and foremost the innocent people, who want to live in dignity and with a sincere patriotic spirit.”
Since the patriarch’s visit to the area a year ago, “the angst has grown and can be read in the faces of all people, particularly the Christian communities and mostly the youth, struggling for their future,” he told the Register.
“While our people are grateful for what the Church has done and is doing to alleviate the suffering of people, they are aware that the Church’s institutions are unable to give the right answers to the extremely complicated situation at the national, regional and international level,” the patriarch said.
“What tears me apart is, above all, the feeling that minorities, particularly the Christian communities, have been abandoned by the Western governments, who seem to be interested only in their geopolitical agenda,” he said.
“What I keep crying out, loud and clear, is that we Christians in the Middle East — among the first Christian communities, which is closest by faith, language and culture to the Semitic environment of Jesus, Mary and the apostles — have not only been abandoned, but also betrayed, because we lack numbers and resources,” Patriarch Younan told the Register.
“Our very survival in our homeland is really at stake,” he warned.
Asked what message he would give to the international community, the patriarch stated:
“The countries allied with the questionable politics and the agglomerate media of the West must stop interfering in Syria’s internal affairs. They have to lift the economic sanctions that only hurt the civilians, who endure the worst living situation, and make their living unbearable. They have to understand the absurdity of exporting the so-called Western democracy into regions, advocating the amalgam between religion and politics in every aspect of public life,” he said.
Patriarch Younan commended the Church’s role in supporting the Christians in Syria.
“Catholic organizations deserve our great appreciation and deep gratitude for their Christian solidarity, providing the humanitarian aid, relieving the suffering of many and assisting in the education of our children and young people,” the patriarch said.
“Nevertheless, we hope that their testimony and advocacy for justice on behalf of the most vulnerable minority, as are the Christians in Syria, should be accompanied by courageous acts with their respective governments. This is the most-needed mission of Western Christians: defending courageously the survival of Christian minorities in the Middle East,” Patriarch Younan said.
“It’s really sad that, for many Western governments, the notion of a secular regime has become extreme secularism, to the point of not even mentioning God anymore,” he said.
Patriarch Younan met with Pope Francis Nov. 28, while in Rome for working sessions ahead of the October 2023 meeting “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
Recounting his meeting with the Holy Father, the patriarch told the Register, “Of course, we are grateful to Pope Francis, who follows closely this unheard drama of the Syrian people. His weapon, as is ours, is praying and begging the Lord in this blessed season of the Nativity, for peace and justice, so that all in Syria and the Middle East may live in true conviviality, justice and peace.”
Despite the suffering he encountered in Syria, the patriarch sees signs of Christmas hope.
As he told the Register, “I was truly amazed and very proud, thanking the Lord Jesus, to see our Christians in that tormented and completely destitute region firmly rooted in their faith and witnessing to ‘hope against all hope.’ Despite all angst and poverty, they were doing their best to create a joyful Christmas atmosphere, especially for the little ones and the poorest.”