Keynote Speech of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
Launching of the Report on Religious Freedom in the World
House of Commons – November 24, 2016, London, UK
Your Eminences, Graces, Reverend Fathers,
Your Excellencies, Lordships,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Allow us first to thank Aid to the Church in Need and the organizers of this public event who invited us to take part in the launching of the “full report on religious freedom in the world”. This report is much needed in order to assess the reality in which we live as people created by the same God and who worship the same God be it in different ways. It also helps us to study the reasons why violations of religious freedom prevail in certain areas more than others. The new findings of this report are an eye-opener to the urgency to act in order to prevent further religious persecution. Moreover, it helps raise awareness about the lack of proper education concerning those who are considered a religious minority and the deficiency in many cultures regarding their need to be open to the other.
We take this opportunity to thank the authors of this report for their diligent work and painstaking efforts in documenting several cases where religious freedom is violated and people are discriminated against because of their beliefs.
Almost every day, we read news of people throughout the world, being persecuted because of their religious beliefs. The form and degree of the persecution greatly vary. It takes different shapes of violence, rape, attacks, uprooting, expulsion, etc… reaching even genocide.
The victims of such religious fanaticism and extremism hail from different backgrounds. It is not a question of geography, or one particular religious group, or a certain economy; it is universal. We see violence committed in the name of religion in Europe as well as in Asia, Africa and in the Middle East. Persecution based on religion is found in rich countries as well as in poor ones, irrespective of the economic status of the victims or the persecutors. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, are all potential victims of violence because of their religious affiliation.
However, it is only in Christianity that persecution is part of ‘what is expected’: with faith in our Lord Jesus Christ comes a potential risk of being persecuted. Witnessing to the Lord Jesus Christ and believing in Him entails that we should keep in mind His blessed words and ‘promise’: “Remember the word that I said unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; if they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15: 20). Therefore, the Church is not only ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic’, but also persecuted.
During the first centuries of Christianity, the believers were constantly persecuted. Though peace and non-violence are characteristic of the Christian teachings, the world was not ready to accept them. Martyrs fell in large numbers, guilty of following their conscience and exercising an innate right to the freedom of confession. They were executed and killed in the most horrible ways. Their killing was the main entertainment in most places, used to amuse the crowds. Nonetheless, the shed blood of the martyrs bore witness to Christ and became a reason for many to accept Christ. This led the apologetic Tertullian to make his famous observation that: “the blood of martyrs is the seed of faith”. The fourth century Father of the Church St. Aphrem the Syrian makes a similar observation by stating that: “ܕܳܡܶܝܢ ܣܳܗ̈ܕܶܐ ܠܺܐܝ̈ܠܳܢܶܐ܆ ܕܰܢܨܺܝܒܺܝܢ ܥܰܠ ܡܰܒܽܘ̈ܥܶܐ܆ ܐܺܝ̈ܠܳܢܶܐ ܝܳܗܒܺܝܢ ܦܺܐܪ̈ܶܐ܆ ܘܣܳܗ̈ܕܶܐ ܡܰܪܕܶܝܢ ܥܽܘ̈ܕܪ̈ܳܢܶܐ.
Martyrs resemble trees planted on the riverside; Trees yield fruits and martyrs provide help.”
However, the Middle East remains the region where most of the persecutions based on religious affiliation occur, of course, largely against Christians. Pope Francis rightly remarks: “..Even today, dear brothers and sisters, in the Middle East and other parts of the world, Christians are persecuted. There are more martyrs than there were in the first centuries.” Indeed, the number of martyrs in the last hundred years in the Middle East has exceeded that of the early centuries of our era, starting with Sayfo, the Syriac Genocide, and the Armenian Genocide, when more than 2 million Christians were massacred. Persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East continues with the systematic targeting of Christian areas such as the Nineveh Plain in Iraq, and the Khabour Region and Sadad in Syria.
These terroristic groups are brainwashing young people by employing a narrow interpretation of the religious texts and takfiri ideologies. We thank God that the violent acts of ISIS against Christians and other minorities were classified as genocide by the UK House of Commons, US Congress and the European Parliament. Action is needed: set up tribunals to bring them to justice.
If anything good can come out of this violence against Christians is that it has brought the Churches of the Middle East closer to each other. Daesh or Al Nusra Front are not distinguishing between Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christians. They see all of us as enemies. This persecution has strengthened the relations among all churches. It has given us a real sense of belonging to each other. It created what Pope Francis rightly calls: “Ecumenism of blood”.
It is very important to identify who our persecutor is! Indeed, the report on the freedom of religion suggested that the persecution of Christians in Syria is done by both state and non-state groups alike. We do not see it as such. The Syrian government has always been supportive of Christians. In Syria, violence against Christians is inflicted by the terrorist groups, including ISIS and Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda), who desire to wipe us out of Syria. It is not the government, or any official state authority that is committing violence attacks against Christians. In Syria, all discrimination and persecution that the Christians are currently suffering from, are carried on by the terrorist groups, some of which are internationally recognized as ‘moderate opposition’.
We believe that the abduction of the two Archbishops of Aleppo their Eminences Boulos Yaziji and Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim, who were kidnapped while on a mission to try to mediate the release of kidnapped priests, was a direct message to Christians that they are not welcomed anymore in their ancestral homeland. After more than 3 and a half years of their kidnapping, we are yet to receive any trustworthy information about their whereabouts and wellbeing.
Furthermore, religious violence is commonly found nowadays in the western world. The report on religious freedom reads that “the period under review has seen the emergence of a new phenomenon of religiously motivated violence which can be described as Islamist hyper-extremism, a process of heightened radicalization, unprecedented in its violent expression”. It mentions also that “since mid-2014, violent Islamist attacks have taken place in one of five countries around the world – from Sweden to Australia and including 17 African nations”. The religious violence and extremism in the West are increasing at an ‘alarming’ pace. It is not kept localized or isolated; rather, it has a global impact, significant enough to threaten the basic rights and freedoms that constitute a balanced ‘western’ society. Islamists attacks in Europe have worried European citizens to the extent of panic. Analyzers of these attacks tried in vain to find ‘excuses’, but the reality is that these terrorist invasions aim at the elimination of religious diversity, and thus target the essential and basic right of freedom of religion. We urge all authorities not to adopt the ‘wrong reading’ of the situation and not to commit the fatal mistake of ‘justifying the wrongdoer’. This will turn against us all. Defending persecutors by giving excuses to their actions will only encourage them to commit even more massacres and will encourage other fanatic religious groups. In this way, the freedoms which have long been defended will be abolished and darker ages would come and wipe away centuries of human civilization.
What Is the Church Doing?:
As Christians, we believe in non-violence; therefore, we encourage dialogue, especially among religious leaders of all groups. Interfaith dialogue is not an option; it is a necessity.
Moreover, we appeal to the consciences of Western leaders and the media: It is time you stand up for freedom, especially religious freedom of Christians and all minorities fighting for survival in their home countries.
The Churches in Syria and Iraq are doing what they can in response to the needs of the people: not only Christians but people of all faiths.
We are engaged on 2 levels: humanitarian emergency response and developmental work, thanks to faith-based organizations like Aid to the Church in Need and others, as well as some international organizations such as UNDP.
This could be done by:
– stopping the flow of arms to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq under the claim of supporting moderate opposition.
– creating a safe haven for Christians in Iraq, where security is guaranteed and where Christians and other religious minorities can live safely without the fear of being persecuted and attacked haunting them.
– supporting national armies in Iraq and Syria in order to eliminate terrorism.
– supporting a strong government in Syria, that is able to protect all the citizens alike, where all are treated based on the principle of citizenship with equal righs and obligations.
– adopt a peaceful resolution that ensures that national dialogue and reconciliation among conflicting groups is the way to reach peace in these countries.
– humanitarian efforts to the displaced, including emergency aid for displaced people and refugees in neighboring countries.
As Christians, our presence in the Middle East is a necessity, not only for our survival as indigenous people of the region, but is also a need for our Muslim brothers and sisters. They are challenged to show that they are able to and willing to live with the other who is different in religion.
We feel abandoned by the International Community. We do not control the natural resources and oil on our homeland, we do not have the numbers and we do not represent any threat to the nations of the Western sphere as others do, and therefore, they do not care about us. However, hope still exists that they would realize the magnitude of the damage caused by religious intolerance and persecutions. Once they become aware of this, they can help us in our fight against terrorism and in our struggle to remain in our homeland, holding firm to our faith and to our beliefs. Please do not misunderstand us: we are not asking for physical or military help. Help us stay in our homeland.
Pray for Christians in the Middle East. Pray that we may continue to live in our homeland, the land of our forefathers. Pray for those who are persecuted because of their faith everywhere. Pray for those who are helping their persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East in the relief and support of any sort. “Pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5: 17)
Thank you and God bless you