Speech of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
November 13, 2018, University of Athens, Athens – GREECE
Upon conferring an Honorary Doctorate to His Holiness
Christians in the Middle East: Is There a Future?
Your Beatitude Archbishop of Athens and All Greece,
We thank God Who gave us this opportunity to visit the blessed land of Greece and be part of this solemn ceremony. Coming to you from the new Antioch, Damascus, we bring with us the greetings of the suffering Christians of the Middle East, those who remain faithful to the apostolic tradition delivered to them since the dawn of Christianity and passed on through the ages until it reached us. We carry with us their pains as well as their firm hope in a better future for them and for their children, in the lands of their forefathers. This is the message of hope we bring to you, like St. Paul who came carrying from Antioch where the disciples of Jesus Christ were first called Christians (cf. Acts 11: 26), the message of hope to the Athenians, hope of eternal life after death.
Our history in our homeland is a complex one. We suffered painful and horrible waves of severe persecution, but we also enjoyed periods of peace and calmness.
During the early era of martyrdom, the pagan world was astonished by the joy of Christians being led to their death. The non-Christian will never understand power of the Cross “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1: 18) The Cross is an invitation to walk the narrow path which is an unchartered territory by the majority. It is to let go of the love of material things and to hold to spiritual rewards promised in the world to come.
Christianity will always face resistance in the world because it puts people out of their comfort zone. It challenges their worldly philosophical convictions with the simplicity of faith “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight”. (I Corinthians 3:19).
Peace and non-violence are characteristic of the Christian teachings; however, the world was not ready to accept that.
Therefore, Christians face rejection in their societies. Severe forms of rejection lead to persecution where hatred is expressed in different forms of violence with the desire to exterminate. Christians throughout the world are victims of persecution; large numbers of Christian communities in all continents face persecution on a daily basis. 4 out of 5 people persecuted for their faith are Christians. Persecution comes in different forms and varies greatly: it can be the lack of freedom of believe, or freedom of worship. It could be as cruel as killing innocent children or families while they are peacefully worshipping the Lord as we have seen in Africa for example.
Martyrs fell in large numbers, guilty of following their conscience and exercising an inalienable right to the freedom of conscience. 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 made 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 deliver help.”
Role of Christians in the Early Islamic Societies
With the rise of Islam, Christians in the Middle East played an important role in advancing the studies of science and philosophy and transmitting all sorts of knowledge through the translation of books from Greek and Syriac language into Arabic.
The Muslim leaders who ruled during the Umayyad 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. They helped run the state affairs, holding sensitive and key positions in the local governments. Sargon, the father of St. John of Damascus, was among the first who organized the diwan of the ruler in the Umayyad era. St. John himself is said to have served as the “Chief administrator to the Muslim Caliph of Damascus, before his ordination”
Mostly known for their intellectual advancement, Christians became the pioneers of science and literature under the Arab rulers who promoted knowledge and education. The early Islamic period was in need of inculturation. Thus, it encouraged the integration of elements of non-Arab civilizations into the customs of their societies. What that age witnessed is a great enrichment of what became known as 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 books of literature mainly from Greek and Latin to Arabic through Syriac. In this way, Christians enabled Muslims to access 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.
Christians also 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 the Arab world. Their interaction with Muslims resulted in the spread of a spirit of moderation among the majority of Muslims.
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 refused, they were allowed to live on the condition that they pay a poll tax or Djeziah, often too high to endure.
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 a peace-loving people who are commanded to love their enemies, reject violence and embrace peace at all times. Their love for peace was often interpreted as a sign of weakness and seen as an incapacity to fight, thus feeding the desire to wipe them out and end their historical existence in their homeland. Christians became minorities 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. Most of the victims were killed because they refused to deny Christ. Others were forced to leave their villages and become refugees. This became known to us as the Sayfo (Sword) genocide which led to a huge demographic change in what is now Southeast Turkey, making us Christians a small minority, struggling to survive in a land that our forefathers built for us and where our Christian faith was sacredly preserved and passed on to us from generation to generation.
Recently, since the beginning of this century, once again Christians in the Middle East went through unbearable difficulties and great hardships, not unlike those faced by their great grandparents a couple of generations ago. ISIS, a terrorist organization created overnight, forced all the Christians who were living in Mosul to leave their homes and evacuate their city. They suddenly found themselves on the streets of neighboring towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain. And later, when the Nineveh Plain was invaded by ISIS, they took refuge in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan. They became jobless, homeless, and stripped of their rights to exist in the place where they were born, in the land they served and contributed highly to its progress and development. They felt abandoned and forsaken. They even felt betrayed by their neighbors; a feeling that instantly broke the trust and made it difficult to restore the brotherly bonds of coexistence that once existed.
In Syria, though the terrorist attacks did not specifically and explicitly target Christians, it is the Christian communities that suffered the most and offered thousands of martyrs. For example, Sadad, which is an exclusively Syriac Christian town of about fifteen thousand inhabitants, was attacked in 2014 by Alnusra Front and other groups. In one day, 45 people were killed. During my visit to the town of Sadad after this massacre, I had to look into the eyes of a father who lost his wife, his two children, his mother in law and his uncle, together with two other members of his family. They were all killed and thrown into a well. How much more evil can be done to this man? What can one say to him who lost all his beloved ones for no guilt of his own or of theirs?
Likewise, the attacks on Deir El Zor in Northern Syria left behind a total destruction of all Christian churches and the complete demolition of the houses of Christians. This makes it very hard on the Christian communities to return to their completely-destroyed houses and to rebuild them; however, we are hopeful that the reconstruction process will slowly take place and the trust gradually regained. 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.
Today, after the liberation of the villages of the Nineveh Plain, the majority of those who left their villages and towns remain in the Kurdish Region of Iraq. In the absence of proper security, many of these Christians have already emigrated to western countries because they fear for their lives.
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 have been abducted since April 22, 2013. We have no information about their whereabouts or conditions. We have been continuously appealing to political and religious leaders to help release them, but so far without success.
The Syriac and Greek Orthodox Churches in Aleppo are united through the abduction of their two Archbishops and in their witness for the common faith in Jesus Christ and for the common destiny of their homeland Syria.
Despite all the adverse and hostile environment which they live in, Christians did not abandon their faith or deny their Lord, for they strongly believe that nothing shall separate them from the love of Christ. They daily repeat with St. Paul: “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. This is the element that they freely choose, namely to be strongly attached to their faith and not to fear the threats of the world. They know that they are “in the world, but not of the world” (cf. John 17: 14-19) and they expect persecution as our Master and Lord Jesus Christ explicitly told us.
Exodus of Christians
Despite their firm attachment to their homeland and their will to be witnesses of the Gospel, the good news, to the people of the Middle East, Christians find themselves forced to leave their homeland. Massive exodus of Christians hugely affected Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey. The number of Christians in those countries dramatically dropped due to migration or expulsion.
Facing this phenomenon, the churches need to bring hope to the people that they still have a future in their homeland by tending to their needs, both in terms of security and financial help. For that, all churches in Syria have been actively engaged in relief efforts as well as in developmental projects.
One big project our Patriarchate undertook to encourage Christians to stay in Syria is the opening of a new university, “Antioch Syrian University”. This project aims at providing university education to all Syrians, irrespective of their religious background. We have started with two faculties: a) Engineering and Architecture, and b) Finance and Business Administration. We have the license to open 5 more faculties: Pharmacy, Law, Sciences, Arts and Literature, and Dentistry.
With one hundred students already registered in the very first semester, the enthusiasm of our Christian people about this project was beyond imagination. We feel that Christians feel proud about Antioch University and this strengthens their hope towards remaining in Syria and having a brighter future there.
Future of Christians in the Middle East:
In order to better understand the importance of Christian witness and slow the exodus of Christians from our part of the world, we wish to make the following points:
- End the wars and violence: In order to be able to continue to live in our homeland, we need to have an immediate end of conflicts, wars and all kind of violence and the establishment of sustainable peace in the region.
- Equal Citizenship and Strong Secular Governments: 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. Though they are less in numbers, Christians refuse to be treated or labeled as minorities. 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.
- Interreligious Dialogue: Mindful of the impact of religion in the public life, we believe that our role as religious leaders in spreading a culture of peace, understanding and mutual acceptance is paramount. Therefore, we need to support all endeavors of dialogue, whether interreligious or mediated by religious institutions that are moderate and that promote peace and reconciliation. Interreligious dialogue on the academic level alone is not sufficient; we need to initiate joint activities such as workshops, seminars and camps among Muslim and Christian young people.
- Building bridges with Muslim societies is highly needed; joint initiatives to promote common values such as respect of human dignity 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 which undermines its moral structure on the other hand.
- Reconciliation: Maintaining Christian presence is a necessity not only for Christianity to continue in the land where it was born, but also for the people of the region. Christians have always been an essential element of reconciliation and bridge-builders among different ethnic and religious components of the region.
- Advocacy: We need the support of our brothers and sisters throughout the world in terms of advocacy and development. It is good to show, in practice as well as in words, that Christians throughout the world express solidarity with their suffering brothers and sisters. Their support can come in different ways such as prayer, relief work or advocacy.
Peace: a Global Engagement
God created the world in order to exist in peace and harmony among all its elements. All human beings ought to be the agents of such peace. Therefore, building a culture of peace should be a common goal for us all 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 humanity. It is our and every generation’s responsibility to promote true and positive peace.
The situation in the Middle East is heartbreaking; yet, hope for peace and optimism that a bright day is near, still exist in the hearts of people. Christians who were able to stay in their homeland remain committed to live peacefully with their neighbors and co-citizens, with the desire to live with dignity and without any sort of religious or ethnic discrimination.
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. Since the terrorist groups are not distinguishing between Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant Christians and 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 has been rightly called: “Ecumenism of blood”.
Finally, we ask you all to 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) that the Lord help us grow into the future that satisfies His will for us to be “light of the world” (John 8: 12).