Observations on Muslim-Christian Relations in the Middle East

Talk Delivered by His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church
on October 13, 2014, at the Yerevan State University – Armenia

Christian Presence in the Middle East: Challenging Times

Your Holiness, our dear Brother in Christ, Catholicose Karekin II,
Supreme Patriarch and Catholicose of All Armenians
Your Eminences Metropolitans, Your Graces Bishops,
Reverend Clergy,
Distinguished Professors,
Dear Audience,

Allow us to thank the Yerevan State University for inviting us to give this talk on the Christian Presence in the Middle East and the challenges Christians are facing in their homeland. This comes at a critical time in the history of Christianity in the Middle East. Today, Christians are left with two options to choose from: either to abandon their land or face persecution and possible extermination. War and conflicts are greatly affecting their lives and threatening their existence in the region where they have lived since the dawn of Christianity.

First of all, we will talk about the historical relations between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East that stretch back to the beginning of Islam. We shall also depict the events of the 1915 genocide and its consequences that continue to this day. We will then offer some observations on the current situation of Christians in the Middle East based on what we have personally seen in our visits to the suffering communities in Northern Iraq and Syria. Finally, we will attempt to offer some ideas which we think will help Christians remain in their homeland.

Observations on Muslim-Christian Relations in the Middle East

To start with, when Islam emerged from the Arabic Peninsula and Muslims started conquering cities, Syrian Christians welcomed them as liberators from the oppression of the Byzantines. While the Byzantine Empire occupied the lands of the Middle East, the Byzantine Church also tried to impose its Christological definitions adopted at the Council of Chalcedon on the Christians of the Middle East.

Afterwards, the Muslim leaders who ruled during the Omayyad and Abbasside periods, gave important and critical positions in their state to Christian prominent scholars and officials. This was a time when Christians were treated favorably. Indeed, Christians had great respect in the Muslim states and they helped run the affairs of the diverse departments, holding major and key positions in the local governments.

Mostly known for their intellectual advancement, Christians became the pioneers of science and literature under the Arab rulers who promoted knowledge and education. Islam, at its infancy, was in need to open up to cultural diversity. Thus, it encouraged the integration of elements of non-Arab civilizations into their customs and societies. What that age witnessed is a great enrichment of the Muslim heritage through the positive interaction with other cultures, civilizations and religions.

Translations played a central role in the transmission of knowledge from West to East. Syriac scholars were active in translating important literature mainly from Greek and Latin to Arabic through Syriac. In this way, Christians enabled Muslims to be exposed to the major works of philosophy, medicine, algebra, astronomy, and other sciences which were developed by earlier civilizations. They made these world heritage works available for Muslim scholars and thus facilitated their advancement.

Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that in more modern times Christians held a leading role in the education of the Arab masses. Christian missions, mainly from Europe, established schools and colleges, and administered institutions of higher education that allowed the local communities to acquire the necessary understanding of the new and recent developments in the diverse sciences and industries.

In the political realm, many political parties that shaped the political orders of the Middle Eastern and Arab countries were established by Christian scholars and intellectuals. They were the founders of new political parties such as the Ba’ath Party and the National Socialist Syrian Party.

Nonetheless, Christians did not always enjoy a peaceful life and a great degree of freedom under Muslim rule. At times, they were forced to convert to Islam; if they refuse, they were allowed to live on the condition that they pay a poll tax or Djeziah, often too high to endure.

Persecutions were on and off all the time; From the early invasions and conquests, passing through the Mongols and to the Ottomans, Christians always suffered from persecutions which constantly reduced their number and threatened their existence.

1915 Genocide (Sayfo): Armenian and Syriac Martyrs

The Syriac people inhabited the eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire. Christians populated areas in Armenia, Anatolia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and many other places. Historical sources prove that the number of Syriac speaking Christians in that region exceeded one million. They had their proper culture, language, customs and religious practices. They were under the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch of Antioch and All the East.

In 1895, the Christian population of Diyarbakir suffered an unprecedented wave of persecutions which resulted in the martyrdom of more than five thousand Christians. The mass killing stopped only when Patriarch Ignatius Abdelmasih II of Antioch obtained a Farman from the Sultan in Istanbul which protected those who took refuge in the Syriac Orthodox church of the Virgin Mary (Maryamana).

At the turn of the nineteenth century, at the same time when the First World War consumed the minds and spirits of the great world leaders, poverty, hunger, and harsh living conditions were the norm everywhere; however, our subdued people suffered additionally from severe persecutions. The genocide of the Armenian and Syriac peoples was almost unnoticed. The exact number of martyrs was never known; the widely accepted approximation – which we believe is an underestimation – gives us one and a half million Armenians and more than five hundred thousand Syriacs. They were executed without effective or useful reactions from major powers who seem to have forgotten about them.

The alleged reasons for the massive killing were that Christians were interfering in the politics of the Ottoman Empire and were working against the Empire. In this way, the integrity and loyalty of the Christians was put into question. Categorized as traitors, it became legal to kill them for treason. They were falsely accused of betrayal and persecuted under this pretext. In fact, all these claims were falsely connoted to the Christians who were completely blameless in this respect. No one can deny that innocent blood was shed and millions died for no other crime than believing in Christ and being Christians.

Atrocities of different degrees were practiced: looting, stealing, expulsion, rape, violations of every sort, torture, killing, crucifying, etc… This was the common picture of today’s Southern Turkey at the time of the genocide. The bodies of the martyrs were left to the action of nature, burned, or thrown in river. The extermination of great numbers was accomplished in a short span of time. A major international historico-political problem emerged to which the international community did not react in proportion to its gravity and magnitude.

Ninety nine years have passed since the genocide. In fact, the genocide did not start in 1915; rather, it was the year when the killing and massacres were most brutal and violent. It was the year when most of the martyrs of that genocide had their blood shed. It was named “Sayfo” which is the Syriac word for sword. It was named as such because it represents the sword which was directed at the Syriac Christians who were like helpless sheep in the face of their slaughterer. These innocent people were targeted simply because they were Christians. This is evidence that man can be monstrous and act in an outrageous way.

Following the collapse and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the patriarchs and spiritual leaders tried to protect this community and avoid the disturbances. They tried to bring back the confiscated monasteries. They had to travel and spend ample time in obtaining certificates or decrees of legitimate appointment to prove their legal succession to their office. Meanwhile, the monasteries were destroyed and looted; even the patriarchal residence was occupied by Kurds. Conversions to Islam were conducted by force with no respect of the freedom of religion or confession.

Like the Armenian Church, we, in the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, are planning a year-long commemoration of the Syriac Genocide, Sayfo, in order to remind ourselves and others that the world should be united against terrorism and against the spread of hatred and extremism which threaten the basic rights of people.

When we commemorate the 1915 Sayfo genocide, we are in reality commemorating the continuous genocide which was witnessed at the turn of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. When over one third of the Syriac population was put to death, the vast majority of those who managed to save their lives were displaced or immigrated to other countries seeking the opportunity to live. We cannot forget that our forefathers were forced to leave their homelands and possessions while their lives were under threat to seek refuge in foreign places and be dispersed in the world. We owe it to our history and martyrs to make the world recognize this genocide and commemorate it.

Current Situation of the Christians in the Middle East

Today, ISIS and other extreme organizations are abusing the name of Islam. Killing on behalf of Islam and religion, expiating others, imposing Shari’a, categorizing others as infidels or irreligious and judging their death to be the godly way, have become common practices. Millions of Christians and non-Christians in the Middle East currently suffer from religious extremism, war and religious and ethnic cleansing. Sunnis are killed by Sunnis, Shias are targeted by Islamist fanatics, Christians and Yezidis were expelled from their homes and towns, children have lost their parents, and millions of people are prevented from living peacefully because of fanaticism and terrorism. This is nothing short of a “the new genocide”.

In Iraq, we have visited our people twice this summer: during the first time, we met with more than fifteen thousand people who were driven out of their homes in Mosul by ISIS. They took refuge in the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain. Our second visit took place on August 20-25, 2014. Together with a delegation of the patriarchs of the East we visited these same individuals who were expelled for the second time in a few weeks. This time more than one hundred and twenty thousand Christians and other minorities were all driven away from their homes in the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plains into the region of Kurdistan. We have seen the horrible conditions in which our people lives and heard many heart-breaking stories. Moreover, we encountered the many challenges that they were undergoing. There were serious problems that they were facing to stay and continue to live in the land of the ancestors.

During each visit, we have observed that Christians still held hope in the power and mercy of the Lord, namely His power that will lead them out of their present misery and His mercy that will move Him to save them.

When we spoke to the displaced Christians, we tried to assure them that it is not too late and that there is still hope to find a solution. We have addressed the politicians, locally and internationally, asking them to provide these people with international protection. We have written to the UN Secretary-General, the Security Council, the European Union, the UN Human Rights Commission. We have also motivated the Lebanese government to open a case with the International Criminal Court to investigate these evil acts, which constitute crimes against humanity.

On the other hand, the Syrian people in general became have become victims of this senseless war in Syria. While Christians were not specifically targeted for their religion, they took more than their share of suffering and martyrdom. Sadad is an exclusively Syriac Christian town of about fifteen thousand inhabitants. Sadad was attacked by Alnusra Front and other groups. In one day, 45 people were killed. During my last visit to Sadad, I had to look into the eyes of a father who lost his wife, his two children, his uncle and his mother-in-law, together with two other members of his family. They were all killed and thrown into a well. How can we speak of peace with this heartbroken father?

Today, more than four million Syrians are living on the handouts from the International Food Program and other charity organizations in a country that was self-sufficient and debt-free for many decades.

More than 500 days have passed since the abduction of the two archbishops of Aleppo, Boulos Yaziji and Youhanna Ibrahim. We are still waiting to hear reliable news about their whereabouts and their living conditions. These are two men of God who were on their way back from a mission to rescue two kidnapped clergy, when they were abducted. Once more, we call upon all people of good will to do what they can in order to secure their immediate release.

Furthermore, the situation in Lebanon is also very worrying: sectarianism is in control of the political life in the country, division is established and schism between the different constituents of Lebanese society is growing beyond manageable. ISIS, Alnusra front and other armed groups are having a strong hold on several Lebanese towns and villages. The small town of Arsal, which lies on the Qalamon mountainous region on the Syrian-Lebanese border, continues to present a big challenge to the government of Lebanon with members of the armed forces kidnapped and held hostages by these terrorist groups. Every now and then a soldier would be slain while negotiations are not being conducted with ease.

In Lebanon, unity is most needed; in fact, it is the only element that can bring peace into the complexity of confessional groups: unity of will to build together the future for the young citizens, to help elect a new president for the country.

Christians in Egypt continue to experience violence and persecutions: their churches are burnt, the faithful are attacked, Christian women are abducted or raped. Their situation is a sad one with no clear and firm resolutions from the government to stop these crimes and violence.

Proposals to Meet the Challenges

We have repeatedly stated that history is not even equipped with the right terminology to address these atrocities. With the aspirations of the people of the Middle East to live in peace and prosperity being shattered, we ask ourselves: what kind of future awaits these communities? How can young people fulfill their dreams? Will there be any future for them in their own homeland? We are not hopeless and truly think that a solution to these challenges is a necessity.

To help Christians remain in their homeland, we propose the following ideas, while knowing that these ideas alone are not enough.

A peaceful solution for the suffering refugees in Northern Iraq ought to result in their return to their homes in the Nineveh Plain and the city of Mosul. They need to be assured that if and when they return to their homes they will be protected against such attacks. International protection should be provided until they are able to defend themselves and eventually be able to run their own affairs in a protected safe haven either through the creation of a special district or governorate for Christians and other minorities in the Nineveh Plain within a united Iraq. This proposal was suggested by the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The other option would be to join the disputed Nineveh Plain to the region of Kurdistan and to grant these areas autonomy based on articles 34 and 35 of the Kurdish constitution which give administrative autonomy to religious and ethnic minorities in the districts where they constitute a majority.

In Syria, fighting ISIS is a forward step towards a solution. However the US lead campaign to attack ISIS should be carried out with full coordination with the Syrian government in order to attain the desired result. Fanaticism and religious extremism should not be allowed to spread in the region. It should be made known to all that Christians will not abandon their faith or alter their way of living because of the ideology of individuals and groups to whom moderation is foreign and tolerance is alien. We will continue to live in peace with the millions of peace loving Muslims, Jews and other religious groups in the Middle East. As Christians, our mission is to spread love, peace and harmony in the world.

God created the world in order to exist in peace and harmony among all its elements. Human beings ought to be the agents of such peace. Sustainable true peace is not merely the absence of war and violence, it is rather the result of a healthy relationship with our Creator. It is then reflected in our relationship to each other and with nature. Therefore, building a culture of peace should be a common goal for all of us in order to prepare a better future for generations to come. In so doing, we need to draw on lessons learnt from our past experiences. World wars, genocides and religious and ethnic cleansings are shameful stains in the history of our human race. It is our and every generation’s responsibility to promote true peace.

Furthermore, the most adequate assurance for Christians to remain in the Middle East is a strong secular government where all citizens are equal and where Christians do not feel that they are treated as second or even third class citizens. The international community, no matter how sincere they are in their concern for Christians in the Middle East, will not be able to protect them. Migration, on the other hand, is not the solution for Christians. They need to be encouraged to stay in their homeland. Nonetheless, they can only do that when there is a strong secular government that is able to protect all citizens regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Building bridges with Muslim societies is highly needed; joint initiatives to promote common values such as respect of human beings and human rights should be organized. These initiatives should aim at developing ways to combat religious extremism on the one hand and secularization of the society and its moral structure on the other hand.

The silent Muslim majority should be convinced that remaining inactive will eventually lead to their own perish; they need to be vocal and clear in their condemnation of the atrocities committed against Christians and other minorities in the name of Islam.

Islamic religious leaders are specifically urged to distance themselves from narrow interpretations of Koranic text and to promote moderate teachings which encourage tolerance and acceptance of the other.

We encourage a line of thought which calls for the separation of religion and state. ISIS and other terrorist groups seek the reestablishment of the Islamic Caliphate. However, when we look back at the largest Islamic states during the Omayyad and Abbasid Caliphates, we do not find them strictly implementing the Shari’a law. In fact, Christians and Jews occupied important positions in those states. In order for Christians to live among Muslims in the Middle East, we ought to encourage the society to embrace the idea of a modern secular state where all citizens are treated equal.


Distinguished Audience,

The explosive situation in the Middle East, including the recent beheading of American and British journalists and other innocent people is heartbreaking, yet hope for peace and optimism that a bright day is near, still exist in the hearts of people. Mindful of the impact of religion in the public life, we believe that our role as religious leaders in spreading a culture of understanding and acceptance of one another is paramount.

The perception among many of us is that the international community is not reacting with the adequate proportion to the wars and persecutions of Christians in the Middle East. Only when their economic or strategic interests are at stake, will they show any care or concern. It is our belief that the common people everywhere sympathize with our people’s suffering and feel strongly with the humanitarian tragedy that has befallen upon Christians. Not only do they care about Christians but also about all the people of the world as they are always ready to offer humanitarian assistance when needed and to promote of the values of freedom, democracy and dignity for all. Solidarity of this sort revives our hope in the fraternal ties that engage all humans together and enlighten, though by little, the dark present in which we are living with the aspiration of the possibility of a brighter future.

Thank you.