“My friends, the very existence of Eastern Churches, those churches that are from the apostolic time, is at stake. They are in danger,” Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan of the Syriac Catholic Church of Antioch said Aug. 2.
Christian leaders try to encourage their flock to stay in their home country.
“But believe me, this is not easy,” the patriarch said. “Because the Christians in Syria, they feel abandoned, even betrayed, by the so-called powerful nations, most particularly in the West.”
Patriarch Younan delivered remarks to the Supreme Convention of the Knights of Columbus in Toronto, Canada Aug. 2. He had strong words for Western foreign policy.
“We have to stand up to apply the principle of religious freedom. You can’t be the best ally with regimes that discriminate and do not grant religious freedom to non-Muslims,” he said.
He called for the enforcement of the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights and action from Western countries, the Russian Federation, China, Brazil and the United Nations.
“What we need most is to stand up and defend our religious freedom and our civil rights,” he said.
The patriarch is based in Lebanon but oversees many of the Catholic faithful in Syria. He recounted Middle East Christians’ past warnings to the West to be careful in Syrian intervention and to reject talk of the “Arab Spring.”
“The situation in Syria is very complex,” he said.
The patriarch cited the complex web of religious, racial and linguistic minorities. He warned of the risk of exporting western-style democracy into regions where it has never been exercised and where the separation of religion from state has not taken place.
If Islam is the religion of the country, he said, that means “you’re going to discriminate against non-Muslims, for whatever confession they are.”
Given that religious freedom in the Middle East is linked to relations with the Islamic religion, he said, contemporary Middle East Christians “do not understand how we can close our eyes to political parties based on Islam.”
He cited the motto of the Muslim Brotherhood: “Allah is our objective, the Prophet is our leader. The Koran is our law. Jihad is our way and dying for God is our ultimate desire.”
Patriarch Younan warned that some methods of teaching Islam to children lack exegesis and are a danger, leading to situations like the murder of the French priest Fr. Jacques Hamel.
The general situation of Iraqi and Syrian Christians was also a focus of the patriarch’s remarks.
He spoke of he kidnappings and killings of civilians and the atrocities committed by the Islamic State group or the warring parties in Syria. He recounted the destruction of churches and monasteries in Iraq and Syria and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian Christians.
Unless Christians are protected, he warned, Christianity will soon die in Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon. He said it would be comparable to Turkey where there are so few Christians despite its history of ecumenical councils and Fathers of the Church.
The Knights of Columbus have raised over $11 million for Christian refugees since 2014. The Catholic fraternal organization has helped provide food supplies, medical clinics, infrastructure, and housing. It has also supported Syriac Catholic priests exiled from Mosul.
Holy See Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, writing to the convention on behalf of Pope Francis, thanked the Knights of Columbus for their “strenuous efforts” to defend the human rights and legitimate aspirations of persecuted Christians and to provide for their needs.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus responded to Patriarch Younan. He cited atrocities like the murder of four Missionaries of Charity in Yemen and the kidnapping of their priest Fr. Thomas Uzhunnalil.
He asked the convention for a moment of silence to pray for “these martyrs of our faith and victims of religious hatred.”