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Violence no way to end Syria crisis, patriarch warns
A conversation with His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef III Younan, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, head of the Syrian Catholic Church
17 February, 2013 |
“When Christians leave and cross the ocean, they rarely return,” says His Beatitude
|FEAR FOR CHRISTIANS: His Beatitude Ignatius Youssef III Younan, the Patriarch of Antioch speaks from the sanctuary of St Mary’s Cathedral during his visit to Sydney. Photo: Duraed Faseh
Ignatius Youssef III Younan, the Patriarch of Antioch, who has witnessed his countrymen flee Syria to escape the escalating violence that has already claimed more than 60,000 lives.
“It’s a really horrendous evolvement of that internal conflict that is soon to become regional and international,” says the patriarch, who was in Australia last week.
For every death, 10 people are fleeing for the relative safety of neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
“We have 600,000-700,000 forced into exile,” he says.
“Inside the country we have the people who have been forced to move out of their own home towns and villages by the millions.”
While Christians once made up 10 per cent of the Syrian population, the patriarch says that figure is now “much less”.
Syriac Christians live in fear, as “we have Iraq as a neighbouring country and we know what happened to Christians in Iraq”, he says.
“For us Christians, we don’t stand with any regime. We don’t stand with any ruler or party.
“They are not formed in militias, they don’t have weapons, and they don’t want to fight with violent means to change the regime, because there is no hope that any change with violence will be better than the present one.”
The bishops of the four Syrian dioceses and their priests “are still there; they manage to keep going, taking care of their flock”.
But the threat to clergy is real.
A Greek Orthodox priest, the Rev Fadi Jamal Haddad, was kidnapped near Damascus in
His body was found days later. He had been tortured and suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
“You can’t tell anyone who feels threatened ‘do not be afraid’; you have to try to give him tranquillity, security, and try to dialogue with him or her,” the patriarch says.
“Those who are victims of the conflict are innocent people, and among them are people from Christian communities because our Christian communities are spread across the whole country.
“They can’t trust anymore just slogans and words by the Western countries, to ‘not be afraid because the government will be thrown out, and those who will come in will
ensure democracy for all’.”
While the patriarch acknowledges that “the regime in Syria had to be changed” and “needs a lot of reforms”, he has little hope that any regime would protect Christians.
“It’s true that we need changes, but changing the regime with violence is not possible,” he says. “Violence will produce more violence.”
The patriarch warned against comparing “the turmoil in Syria [with] the one in Egypt or the so-called Arab Spring countries”.
“We have this hostility between confessions, and confessional conflicts are still worse than the political ones.
“The civil war in Syria is not what we were told by the media, that it was between a dictatorship or an autocratic regime and those revolutionaries preaching democracy and freedom. That’s not the truth.
“It’s between a majority of Sunnis, who make up almost 70 per cent, and a minority of
Alawite; they have had the control of the regime for decades.”
The patriarch criticised the “unilateral position” of the international community, and called for assistance in negotiating a peaceful end to the conflict.
“What we hope, we beg the international family to help the Syrian people find a way with non-violent means to get reconciliation and to have political changes with the dialogue and deliberations, and not with weapons.
“Those who want to help the country have to encourage all factions to sit down and talk about how to make reforms.
“I think the role of Western countries is to help all factions to get together and to say the truth to all, that you have the right to request changes but not with violent and terrorist acts against minorities, and those who do not share your religion.”
The patriarch was last in Syria in May 2012 for a meeting of Catholic bishops in Aleppo.
“Now Aleppo is besieged, surrounded by militia, and there is no means to travel without the risk of being kidnapped or harassed,” he says.
“Homs, the city centre is destroyed and all the churches and Christian institutes in that area have been destroyed or damaged, and abandoned.
“We have a bishop who fled his residence and his cathedral with other priests and Christian leaders to surrounding areas in the countryside.”
While the Church does not encourage emigration, “we can’t impede, or tell people not to
emigrate, because they know what is best for themselves”.
“I have members of my family, brothers, sisters, relatives – they left everything and they came to Lebanon trying to get visas for whatever consulate they could.
“For us it is a cause of great sadness, because wherever you have this kind of great exodus it means it is a great loss for us in the Middle Eastern countries.
“However, I have to say that I can’t anymore request from our people to keep going in that situation of being threatened all the time.
“So I pray for them, I encourage them to be strong and be always hopeful to keep going on as a witness of the faith, but I would let them make the choice where to go and how to leave.”
The patriarch was born in Hassake, in north-eastern Syria, to parents who fled Turkey as
children after World War I.
He attended high school and entered the seminary in Lebanon, followed by priestly studies in Rome, and was ordained in 1971. He was seminarian vice-rector for two years, then diocesan catechesis director, until he was appointed to a parish.
“I had been called to take over the parish at the demarcation line in Beirut, where I served for six years,” he recalls.
This experience helped to prepare him for the challenges of the role of patriarch.
“I buried young people from my parish, once six people in one day,” he says.
“I was aware of the risks of such a ministry, as the patriarch, but I have the conviction that a shepherd has to be with his flock, and I tried to help those who were in need and give them some hope.”
He later helped establish three missions in North America for Syriac Catholic refugees.
“In 1995 I was appointed first bishop of a newly-created eparchy for Syaric Catholics, by Pope John Paul II,” he says.
“I did serve that eparchy for about 14 years until I was elected to be Patriarch of Antioch in January 2009.”
The patriarch, based in Beirut, has made eight visits to Iraq, three to Turkey, three to India, and many to Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
On a recent visit to Bagdad, he reopened the Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Cathedral (also known as Our Lady of Salvation) which had been closed in 2010 after gunmen took more than 100 people hostage, killing 58.
“We have been in Bagdad trying to inspire courage and hope in those who have been left behind,” he says.
“I reopened the Our Lady of Deliverance Cathedral that was hit by terrorists, and we had a Mass for eight of our people who had been killed.”
The patriarch says the attack was “a great sadness” for Syriac Catholics.
On his first to Australia, “this beautiful country”, the patriarch “was surprised that I saw many immigrants from Middle Eastern countries”.
“They are glad to be in this great country, living their values of freedom, especially religious liberty, and dignity.”
As he met the new wave of immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and their chaplains, he focused on “the ways to better serve them, to provide for them places for worship, to care about our youth, to gather them and help them get integrated in this new society while keeping their faith and heritage”.
Reuniting families, who have been “scattered and split” by war and migration, should be a priority, he says.
The patriarch visited the tomb of St Mary MacKillop during his stay in Sydney, before travelling to Canberra and Melbourne.
“I had already read about Australia from when I was a student in Rome,” he says.
“I had a couple of fellow seminarians from Australia, and some of the ex-alumni live in Melbourne so I will meet with them.”