“Stand together”: a portal to help persecuted Christians Interview with the Syrian-catholic Patriarch of Antioch, His Beatitude Ignace Yousseff III Younan

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A portal to make known to the world what many organizations are doing on the field to help persecuted Christians, to share their stories, often dramatic, and make them feel less alone, not abandoned, responding also to the repeated appeals made by the Pope in favour of the Christians who live in situations of discrimination. This is the project “Stand together” presented at the Embassy of Spain at the Holy See which involves International Centre of Communion and Liberation, the Association Friends of Rome ReportsFundación Promoción Social de la Culture and Association Iscom.

As explained by Antonio Olivié, CEO of Rome Reports Tv, “we want to do a quality job, by publishing on the web site www.allstandtogether.com, in Italian, Spanish and English, videos and news, not only produced by us, of the persecuted Christians. We are open to the contribution of all”. Roberto Fontolan of CL echoed his words by adding that “more than our web site we want to make know directly those who work on the ground, in the Middle East, in Africa and in Asia, the great good that Christians represent in these regions, the wealth, the beauty, the depth of Christian presence”. The initiative is also supported by the Order of Malta, represented on this occasion by the Grand Hospitaller Prince Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel precisely for their involvement in the first line of the Smom in assisting the populations who suffer. The guest of honour of the presentation was His Beatitude Ignace Youssef iii Younan, Syrian-catholic Patriarch of Antioch. “The Patriarchate does not have a territory as a diocese – he explained – but it is extended in various countries, from Syria to Lebanon to Iraq”.

What is the Church doing for the refugees?
“When Christians fled from Mosul and from the plain of Nineveh towards Kurdistan our bishop of Mosul has helped thousands of displaced people. We found accommodation, built medical dispensaries, schools, churches to make them feel as a community. Also in Lebanon, we try to help the refugees. There is a law that does not recognize them as refugees and therefore they are in need of everything. We have opened a special school for 700-800 Iraqi children with Iraqi teachers and we also guarantee the transport because families do not feel safe to send them alone in the streets. We help them also with food distributions or with legal aid because few get the residence in Lebanon and the majority has no documents”.

What can be done to help refugees not to leave their land or to return?
“I think that we must create a welcoming environment, peaceful for them so that they can return, because if they are here it means that they are threatened, persecuted or they are truly in shortage of everything: they do not have anything anymore. Here is the essential problem of the Western world. We must avoid that each individual country goes there to negotiate in order to have more advantages in trade; we must avoid paternalism: ‘Eh, yes these cannot progress, it takes time, we must accept them as they are’; and we must avoid sectarianism, it is necessary to have a single attitude toward this issue.

Is there the possibility that the local Christian people can become the protagonists of a change, perhaps with external aid?
“No. In Lebanon, we had an almost equal population between the various denominations. Unfortunately, the war from 1975 to 1990 was a catastrophe for everyone but especially for Christians. In the other countries, it is impossible, we are small minorities. See Egypt: the Copts are between 8 and 10 million on 80 but in order to have a member of parliament they must use the quota because otherwise he is not elected. Elections are directed by the mosques. We try to live in peace with others but we need stronger interventions of the family of the nations to say to these peoples ‘Live in the 21st century, not in 7th’. But there must be a unique approach”.

What are the relations with the Muslim communities and what do you expect concretely by the West as regards to the peace process in the Middle East?
“Relations with the Islamic religious leaders are good but at a political-diplomatic level, not to say that there is fanaticism. We meet, we talk in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, but the important thing is that we cannot do more, we are oppressed by a fundamentalism of radical Islam that receives funding. We hope that Europe will wake up and find a suitable solution”.

Will you attend the meeting of al-Azhar?
“I cannot but I sent my Bishop in Egypt. We have already been there other times… They want to show to the world that they are open. But so far in the educational system of Azhar there are lessons to young people that use the verses of the Koran as they are. Some are tolerant, other much less and they say that everything is descended from heaven… those two young people who have killed Father Hamel in France: how come? They did not know him … Because they were formed in this way. It is there that we must intervene, Azhar needs to reform itself. There are already Muslims who are out of Egypt and of the Middle East who speak about this”.

And how do you see the meeting of the Pope with the Sheik of the mosque?
“It is a diplomatic step”.

Refugees do not want to go home. Are you concerned about this?
“It is our greatest concern: how to convince our people to return to their homelands. This especially for young people. We hope that peace, reconciliation and stability take place as soon as possible. The problem is that there are geopolitical agendas that do not involve us. Our youth is losing the virtue of hope. When I visited my people that were eradicated from Mosul and Nineveh in August 2014 I spoke with the President of Kurdistan and he told me that in a few weeks, in a few months they would return and also them with their army to defend them. 2 years and a half are passed… 3 months ago, in November, in the plain of Nineveh I visited the Christian cities. Half of the houses were burned, the churches burned. I celebrated Mass in the biggest Church semi destroyed by fire. They say: ‘How can we return if there is no stability, without a strong government?’ When they have burned houses and churches, only in Christian cities, it was a way to say do not come back anymore, we do not want you. If I had a family with children I would not come back… and in Lebanon they are not regarded as refugees and they will never be accepted as Lebanese, then they say why shall we stay? They are now looking to go especially in Australia, Canada, few in the USA, and in Sweden”.

The Pope says that no religion is a terrorist. What do you think?
“They must prove this, it is not up to me and to the Pope to say…”

Did you speak with the Holy Father recently? Did you ask him to go in Kurdistan?
“No, but there was a bishop and others who have proposed it. Mah, to go is okay. And why? We would be very glad to have the visit of Holy Father but we want the facts that can reassure our people. There is a very big difference between countries as yours and our situation”.

And what the Vatican diplomacy can concretely do?
“It is doing but it is not sufficient. During the Synod of 2015 I proposed to the Vatican to call the American Secretary of State, the secretary of the UN, the foreign ministers of China, Russia and of the European Union to say: we want to tell you that our Christian communities that are not only religious but have culture, a 2000 years old language, the history of Mesopotamia and Syria, are in danger of disappearing. You must do something and it is enough with your own interests please. But it has not been done”.

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