Christianity in the Middle East: Challenges and the Future

Speech of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
at the opening assembly of the “Christianity in the Middle East: Challenges and the Future” Conference
on October 20, 2017, in Berlin


Your Holinesses, Eminences, Graces,
Very Reverend Fathers,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We praise our Heavenly Father for having given us to opportunity to meet brothers and sisters in Christ. Who have shown their concern for God’s people who are going through difficult trials and tribulations. May His Holy name be praised for ever.

Now we wish to express our gratitude to the leadership of the Evangelical Church in Germany for organizing thus important conference on the Christmas of the Middle East. For the last few years, we have been trying to tell our story to the world, especially to our brothers and sisters in the Christian faith.

Very often, our cries were falling on deaf ears. Sometimes, we were openly accused of supporting this regime or that. No doubt Germany is a good place to discuss the plight and the future of the Christians of the Middle East. Not only because of its history of destruction and division during the Second World War, but also because of its generosity in receiving hundreds of thousands of refugees during the last few years, including some Christians who fled the war-torn zones and others who are seeking better living conditions.

While we fully understand and appreciate the kindness and generosity of the German people trying to help others, we are also aware of the importance of these refugees for the labor market of Germany and of the political dimension of this humanitarian issue used to the maximum by regional countries in the Middle East.

Germany has also helped some of our communities by directly supporting relief and development programs initiated by churches through the German NGO help which is partially funded by the Ministry of International Cooperation here in Berlin. We often proposed the German model of working directly with the local Churches to other European countries because it offers a good and efficient way of utilizing these funds to have a maximum impact on the lives of the people intended to help. Unlike huge international relief organizations, a very small percentage goes to expenses and also because Christians do not go to refugee camps where the international organizations are mainly active.

However “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Luke 4:4). Christians in the Middle East need more than monetary help to survive in the land of their ancestors. They need to be treated on the basis of their citizenship not religion. They can survive when they live with dignity in a society where they can practice their faith freely and be respected as human beings and full citizens and not as dhimmis who should pay jiziah tax in order to be allowed to live. Hence, we fail to understand the attempt of the western world trying to overthrow secular regimes and replace them with religious ones in our part of the world.

Our history with Islam is a complex one. We had many decades and centuries of peaceful coexistence, but we also suffered painful and horrible waves of persecution.

With the rise of Islam, the Christians in the Middle East played an important role in advancing the sciences and transmitting all sorts of knowledge by translating major books from Greek to Arabic through Syriac. In this way, Syriac Christians allowed muslims to have access to the accumulated knowledge in the West.

Christians helped organize life in the prosperous Islamic world of the middle ages, in all aspects: social, scientific, legal, medical, economic, political, etc… Christianity thus became a vital component for the culture of Middle Eastern countries, culturally interacting with Muslims, resulting in a spirit of moderation for the majority of Muslims.

Despite the fact that Christians never took sides in any ethnic or confessional conflicts among the Muslims, they ended up paying the highest price because they are peace-loving people who are commanded to love their enemies, reject violence and embrace peace at all times.

Christians became minor ties in numbers in their own historical homelands because of forceful conversions and as a result of imposition of heavy taxes on them. The great persecution of Christians in the former Ottoman Empire at the turn of the 20th century stands out as the first act of genocide which wiped out more than 2 million Christians: Armenians, Syriacs, and Greeks. They were killed because they refused to deny Christ. Others were forced to leave their villages and become refugees. Nonetheless, all this was done within the lands of our historical homeland. In this regard, we highly appreciate the historical decision of the German Bundestag recognizing the Genocide of the Armenians and Sayfo, the Syriac Genocide.

Today, Christians in the Middle East are going through difficult times and great hardships, not unlike those faced by their grandparents a couple of generations ago. Over one hundred thousand Christians from the villages and towns of the Nineveh Plain remain refugees in the Kurdish Region of Iraq even after more than a year of liberating their villages. Many of these people have either left for the countries in the west or are on their way to do so. Ancient Churches and monasteries, schools and other church institutions have been attacked and destroyed in Iraq, Syria, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. Several clergymen and thousands of believers have fallen martyrs refusing to give up their faith. Our two Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Mor Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji are in captivity since April 22, 2013. We have no information about their whereabouts or conditions. We have been appealing to political and religious leaders to help release them, but so far without success.

Why is their suffering and plight not of interest to the world? They were not kidnapped as two mere individuals, but as two church leaders knowing that their abduction will cause a great fear for Christians and make them leave the country.

Islamic fanaticism used by and sometimes encouraged and funded by regional countries and international powers resulted in the migration of a great number of Christians from the Middle East.  The recent killing of a Coptic Orthodox priest, the killing of priests in Mosul and Baghdad a few years ago, are nothing but messages of hatred and hostility toward Christians to force them to leave their homeland.

All these adverse elements and hostile environment did not make Christians abandon their faith or deny their Lord, for “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8:35). They remain committed to their gospel values and the teachings of Christ and of the Church. They also wish to remain in the lands of their ancestors where they constitute the indigenous people of that part of the world.

Nevertheless, Christians who were able to stay in their homeland remain committed to live peacefully with their neighbors and compatriots, with the desire to live with dignity and without any sort of religious or ethnic discrimination. Christians can be elements of stabilization and means of reconciliation among the different sides as they have been a source of enlightenment and education throughout the history.

In order to stay in our land, we need help in the following areas:

  • End of wars and all kind of violence
  • Equal citizenship for all
  • Respect for religious and ethnic identity
  • Support for reconciliation efforts among all components
  • Support for efforts to rebuild our lives as individuals and communities
  • Effort to rebuild churches and institutions
  • Development projects.
  • Our future is linked to the future of our Muslim neighbors
  • Strong governments able to protect the interest of all components
  • Inter religious initiatives specially among the young people.

The International Community bears a good part of the responsibility for the conflicts and wars in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq. Some countries continue to stand on the wrong side in this war. Some international and regional powers are still supporting terrorist organizations with funds and arms.

A political solution for the conflicts in the Middle East ought to be the prime concern of the International Community, which should commit itself to promoting peace through negotiation and diplomacy, for the sake of ending the violence which has already caused so much harm. This can be reached by establishing permanent peace as soon as possible, with the promotion of moderate and secular systems of governance that can provide stability and secure freedom. In addition, the International Community should work to secure the return of refugees to their homes and lands where they can live in dignity and enjoy basic human rights.

Islamic nations are causing harm to Islam itself by simply observing ISIS and all terrorist organizations, yet doing nothing. Islamic leaders, both Sunni and Shiite ought to encourage moderate Islam, and educate Muslim scholars, and issue Fatwas that condemn the attacks on Christians and ethno-religious persecution. They should also support dialogue, openness, and diversity, accepting Christians as equal citizens with same duties and rights.

At the end, we should keep in mind that violence and religion do not go together; Christians are invaluable peacemakers without whom the Middle East would certainly fall into the hands of extremism and fundamentalism. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that Christians remain in their countries. And that religious fanaticism and terrorism of all kinds is dismantled in all its forms, especially getting rid of the ideologies that are the cause and the basis for terrorism.

Terrorism knows no borders, and it has already struck in the heart of Europe. We all should unite our efforts to make sure that it is defeated for the sake of the future generations of our human race.

Last week, in Budapest, the Minister of Human Capacities Mr. Zoltan Balog reminded us of the title of a lecture we delivered there last February:

“Will there Still be Christians in the Middle East?”
Then he raised an equally important question saying: “will there still be Christians in Europe.
I will add if there no more Christians in the Middle East will there be Christians in the world?

Thank you.