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 2nd International Conference on Persecuted Christians
November 26, 2019, in Budapest – HUNGARY
Your Excellency Mr. Prime Minister Viktor Orban,
Your Holinesses and Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Two years ago, many of us were gathered in this same room at the invitation of His Excellency Viktor Orban for the First International Conference on Persecuted Christians. We consider that event to be the first of its kind in Europe where a European government takes the issue of the persecution of Christians very seriously and organizes an international conference for the same.
After two years, we meet again for the 2nd International Conference on Persecuted Christians; this demonstrates the unwavering commitment of Hungary concerning the issue of the persecution of Christians despite the strong criticism it faced by different quarters. On the other hand, the Hungarian passion for and action on behalf of the persecuted Christians have become a source of inspiration for some other countries to come out publicly in support of this cause, although the Hungarian efforts and actions have not yet been matched by others.
We wish to express our profound gratitude to the Prime Minister of Hungary His Excellency Mr. Viktor Orban, as well as to all the efficient officials and staff in the Hungarian State Secretariat for the Aid of the Persecuted Christians and Hungary Helps headed by the State Minister Mr. Tristan Azbej, for their constant support of the people who are suffering from terrorism, violence and injustice throughout the world.
For the past five years, heads of churches and Christian religious leaders from the Middle East have been sounding the alarm concerning the existential threats against the presence and the future of Christians in the Middle East. We have been highlighting the persecution and the ethno-religious cleansing we are subjected to, mainly by armed groups, some of whom supported and funded by regional as well as international powers, in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and other countries of the Middle East. However, our cries have not been heard by many. Very few tangible steps have been taken to counter this real threat to our existence as indigenous people in the land of our forefathers.
What we have faced as Christians is nothing short of a genocide. Over five years ago, all of a sudden, ISIS or Daesh emerged in the historical city of Mosul which caused the exodus of its entire Christian population who took refuge in the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plains (here I wish to commend the heroism and courage of His Eminence Mor Nicodemus Daoud Sharaf who is among us here, who was one of the last people to leave the city having made sure all his flock have escaped). These same people were once again driven out of their refuge place together with the inhabitants of the Nineveh Plains, some 125,000 Christians found themselves homeless and when they finally made it to the Kurdish region of Iraq, they were hosted by local churches, but many of them, having no shelter, were sleeping on the streets and in the parks under the burning sun of August.
The tragedy of Northern Iraq, however, was not a single event and did not start then and there. We recall what happened to Christians during the civil war in Lebanon and how the massive migration weakened the Christian population there. Even today, Lebanon is experiencing a great deal of unrest and Christians could once again be forced to migrate in large numbers because of the political instability and the daily demonstrations taking place in that country.
We, likewise, recall the events in Egypt where churches were attacked and many Christians became martyrs for their faith. How can we forget the 21 young men beheaded on the Mediterranean shore in Libya for refusing to deny Christ their Lord and Savior?
In Iraq, several members of the clergy, such as Bishop Faraj Raho, Father Boulos Iskandar in Mosul and Father Youssef Adel in Baghdad, were martyred for their faith. The church of our Lady of Salvation (Sayyidat al Najat) in Baghdad was the scene of a horrific crime committed by some Muslim fanatics; two priests and some 50 parishioners paid the ultimate cost for their faith and became martyrs for Christ.
In Syria, the town of Sadad, which is an exclusively Syriac Christian town, was invaded by Al-Nusra fanatic group (Al Qaeda) and in one day, 45 people were martyred including 7 members of the same family who were killed and their bodies thrown into a well. Al Qaryeten is another town in the central part of Syria which had several hundred Christian families was invaded by Daesh (ISIS) and more than 250 Christians were taken hostages for several months. After 6 and a half years, we are still waiting to hear about the fate of the two abducted Archbishops of Aleppo Boulos Yaziji and Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim. Their abduction was a clear message to their flocks in Aleppo and to Christians in Syria in general that Christianity has no place in the region. We believe that the suicidal attack during a celebration we personally attended in Qamishly – Syria, in commemoration of the Sayfo Genocide in June 2016, had the same intention.
In all these cases, and many others, Christians were given one of three choices to make: either to convert to Islam, pay Jeziah tax, or leave, otherwise, they would be killed. Many of them have chosen to leave not only the areas occupied by terrorists and armed groups, but the country at large. Our estimation is that more than 90% of Christians have left Iraq and almost 50% of Christians of Syria have left the country.
This dramatic decrease in the numbers of Christians in the region will no doubt weaken our presence and contribution. It is therefore very important to do all we can to encourage those Christians who are still in the region to remain in their ancestral homeland by providing the necessary means to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods. In this regard, we wish to highlight the support given by Hungary. Last week for example, a grant of 162 million Forint, which is over 500,000 dollars, was granted by Hungary to enable the church to rehabilitate one hundred apartments in Old Homs, thus allowing one hundred families to their Christian neighborhood, as well as help construct a community center for internally displaced families who end up in the city of Lattaqia, provided this grant reaches us, as we are encountering severe difficulties in receiving donations or making any kind of bank transactions. This, however, cannot be compared with the suffering of the Syrian people, because of the unjust and illegal sanctions imposed on us by the US and the European Union. I take this opportunity to ask you, brothers and sisters, to help lift these sanctions which only hurt the ordinary people. I am also happy to report that tomorrow a memorandum of understanding in going to be signed between Pazmany Peter Catholic University of Budapest and Antioch Syrian University, which is the first Christian-run university established in Damascus a year ago. This is also a fruit of the relationship with the State Secretariat for the aid of the persecuted Christians.
We read in the gospel of John 18: 23 the question that our Lord Jesus posed to the official who slapped Him in the face when the high priest was questioning Jesus: “If I speak the truth, why did you strike me?” (John 18: 23). We, Christians today, who carry the cross and walk in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ, are we not allowed to ask the same question: Why do you persecute us? But don’t we know the answer to that? Did not the divine Teacher forewarn us that we will be persecuted for His name?
As spiritual fathers entrusted by the Lord to tend to His flock, we, church leaders, carry the pain and suffering as well as the hopes and aspirations of our people, to the international community. We have the obligation to remind the world that we Christians, the salt of the earth and the light of the world, are called to continue to bear witness in the land where Christianity was born. Our presence in that part of the world is a necessity, not only for our survival, but indeed for the survival and wellbeing of the Muslim brothers and sisters we live with for Christians have always played an active role in their societies, both in the early stages of Islam and in recent history. They were particularly active in the educational and political aspects of life.
However, in order to survive and thrive in our homeland, we believe that certain conditions should exist such as:
- Freedom of religion should be guaranteed for all human beings. Christians need the legislative assurance that they, like all their compatriots, are able to worship freely and without fear.
- Secular state which is not based on any specific religion, but respects all religions and is able to protect all its citizens.
Following a meeting of the Patriarchs and heads of churches in Damascus on August 2019, we issued a statement in which we “highlighted the importance of the participation of all the components of the Syrian people in elaborating a common vision for the future of their country, within a state established on the foundations of democracy, the rule of law, equal citizenship and respect of diversity.”
- Respect for human rights as well as the liberties which assures quality of life and dignity for all.
- The principle of equal citizenship should be upheld in our countries. Christians should not feel that they are second-class citizens; rather, they are equal with others in their rights and obligations.
- Dialogue on different levels is of paramount importance: a national dialogue where different groups assume their common responsibilities in promoting reconciliation and tolerance among the people.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Gathering together in the framework of this 2nd International Conference on the Persecuted Christians assures us of the love and care that we have for each others, and sends a strong signal of solidarity to the suffering Christians throughout the world. We pray for the success of this conference and ask the Lord to bless us all that we may all share in carrying His cross as one big family.