Wednesday, 6 July 2016

"Christians need a safe zone under UN protection for at least 10 years"

The Patriarch in Fátima
This is a full transcript, in the original English, of my interview with His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III, of the Syriac Catholic Church. News story (in Portuguese) can be read here.

Esta é uma transcrição integral, no inglês original, da minha entrevista ao Patriarca da Igreja Católica Siríaca. A reportagem pode ser lida aqui.

What brings you to Portugal?
This is my first visit to Portugal. I have wanted to make such a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Fátima for several years. We organised this trip for prayer, to pray to her for peace in the Middle East. I did the same thing three years ago when I organised another pilgrimage to Lourdes, in France. So it is a trip of hope, of renewed veneration to the Mother of the Lord, the Virgin Mary, whom we venerate very much in the East.

Is devotion to Our Lady of Fátima widespread among the faithful in your church?
Not really, not as much as to Our Lady of Lourdes, but we will work on it. We are finishing the first church dedicated to Our Lady of Fátima in Lebanon. Actually we, the Syriac Catholic Church, have also the first church dedicated to Our Lady of Fátima in Syria, which is in Damascus. It was dedicated forty years ago. So we try surely to spread the devotion to Our Lady of Fátima since hers was especially a message of peace, hope, penance and return to the Lord, which we very much appreciate in these times of darkness which surrounds all aspects of life in the Middle East, in particular Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

Five years after the beginning of the war in Syria, how do you assess the current situation?
We are all devastated, especially by this hypocritical agenda of the Western politicians. They don't care for anything besides their own interests. I just read about the visit of the second ranking person in Saudi Arabia, the son of the present King, to France. He was welcomed with tremendous respect by the French President and everybody knows that these kind of relations are based on – it’s very sad to say – a Machiavellian agenda, for the interests of both countries, without thinking about the many infractions and retrograde regime which is not even accepted by the family of civilised nations because of the lack of respect for Human Rights.

We are so sad to see that we have been forgotten. Christian minorities have been living in the region for Millennia and we have been forgotten by the so called civilised Western nations. The same ones which pretend to protect the charter of human rights and democracy, equality and religious and civil liberties.

How often do you travel to Syria?
I was born in Syria. As you know, unlike his eminence Manuel III [Patriarch of Lisbon] who is a Patriarch merely in title, we as patriarchs of Eastern Churches are the heads of Churches sui iuris, so the Patriarch is a spiritual head and has to visit his flock, his church, wherever they exist.

So I was recently in Sweden for two weeks, to inquire about the situation of our emigrants, especially those who were forced to flee Syria and Iraq. It's not easy for us.

I usually travel at least once a month to Syria, but not to every spot in Syria. I am tied to Damascus, Homs and the Coast. The other regions, like the North-eastern region, Aleppo, Hassakeh, it is not possible for me to travel.

Your brother Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church survived an assassination attempt just one week ago. Are you constantly under threat?
I think we all, in the Middle East, live a kind of threat and we can't just say that we have to avoid those threats, or we won't fulfil our spiritual and pastoral duties. Of course, we were so sad to hear about that attempt, and I did call him, we spoke right after it, and we keep always in touch, we encourage each other, we try to do our best to fulfil our responsibilities.

In this occasion, his life was saved by the intervention of members of Sutoro, a Christian militia which works closely with the Kurds. Is there a place for Christian militias in Syria?
I do not agree with this terminology, saying that there are militias. There are Christian groups which want to defend their villages, their towns, because they did endure attacks by the Islamic State and those terrorists and many were killed or kidnapped or forced into Exodus. So we encourage our people to defend themselves within the legal army or security forces. We don't speak about militias which go out and fight others, like their neighbours, or take part in conflicts outside the areas where they live.

But in Iraq or in Syria, for example, it is not possible for the government or army to be everywhere, because the sectarian war has been going on and on for years, so the people have a duty to defend themselves. Both the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch and myself agree that we have to stand up to defend lives, families, women, children from being slaughtered like sheep in these savage attacks.

Therefore I am not talking about militias as they are usually described. We don't have militias, we have people who want to defend themselves, their houses and their villages.

Some Christian groups advocate for autonomy in majority Christian areas in Iraq and Syria, mainly in the Nineveh plains. What is your opinion on this?
Let's take each country separately. In Iraq there is no longer anywhere where our people can exist in dignity and liberty other than in a safe zone. There is no one description of what that safe zone would be. Usually one speaks about a kind of province, where Christians and minorities, in the Plain of Nineveh, could live together.

Still now, in Iraq, we have the Plain of Nineveh, where the majority are Sunni Arabs and minorities like Christians, Yazidis, Shabaks and Kurds are not accepted as citizens with full rights. They have been tolerated, so we have been talking about a kind of safe zone, like a province, or a zone which would be decentralized, that is, under the protection of the United Nations for at least about 10 years, until we find a way for real coexistence between various ethnic, confessional and religious groups.

So we are not talking about an autonomous region, this would be unrealistic. We are talking about a kind of safe zone either dependant on the central government in Baghdad, or on Kurdistan. Until now we don't know which of these will control the plain of Nineveh. But for humanitarian reasons we do need some kind of international protection, otherwise the Plain of Nineveh, which is the cradle of Christianity in Mesopotamia, will be empty and when it is empty it will not be for a period of time, but forever, because usually Christians and others don't feel safe when they are not accepted as full rights citizens by a majority which mixes religion and state. That is why we need this kind of international supervision or protection.

Patriarch Ignatius Joseph celebrates
mass in Fátima, with Syriac pilgrims
When ISIS really rose up and took Mosul and much of the Nineveh Plain, Kurds were the only ones who immediately resisted the jihadists and gave protection to the Christians. But since then I have also heard grumblings from some local Christians that the Kurds are really more interested in consolidating power than sharing it with Christians, Yazidis and other minorities. Your thoughts?
As you just said, Christians and other minorities had no other safe option than to get to Kurdistan, because Kurdistan was a nearby region where they could find refuge. The Islamic State fighters and others used to control all other areas.

Now, of course we all know that the Kurds want their own autonomous country, or territory. We will have to recognise that they have the right to have their own autonomous and independent region, or state. The problem is that many of those who are talking about this very delicate issue think that Kurds had to sacrifice themselves for others. It wasn't so simple. They were on the front line with the Islamic State fighters and they had to defend their own autonomous region, with a long front, about 800 kilometres, so it wasn't easy.

Now we don't know what will happen in the future, because we are talking about minority groups like Christians which, it is very sad to say, are not drawing the interest of the super powers or nations, especially of the Western World. So we have been left alone. Where to go? Baghdad has been almost half-emptied of its Christians, and we have no other option than the plain of Nineveh or Kurdistan. We need to go back to our motherland, the Plain of Nineveh, and to live peacefully with others.

So who is going to give us the assurance that we can live in equal rights with the majority? We need the help of the international community to tell the central government of Baghdad and the Kurdish government that these small communities, the minorities, have the right to live in their own land, with the dignity of human beings and they have to provide them with the conditions for a right to live in dignity.

This is in Iraq. In Syria we can't talk about an autonomous region, because Christians are, or were, spread in almost every spot in the country and we didn't have these kind of attacks against Christians as such, but because we have been left, in some areas, alone, and the army of the country could not help to defend everywhere, not only Christians, but also people from other religions or confessions who have been attacked.

Christians mostly feel that they have to be with their compatriots of other religions, and just focus on civil rights issues to build again a nation with equal citizenship amongst all, to build a civilised country for the future. So we try especially to explain to the international families, the tragedies of our people, especially the Christians, in Iraq, to help us stay in our land, and the first condition for that is to be given international protection.

Many people expected the conflict to spill over into Lebanon, but until now, things have been relatively peaceful. To what can we attribute this?
Lebanon, as you well know, has had its share of suffering and civil war in the 70's, late 80's and early 90's. So I think because the Lebanese learned that internal conflict is not going to help anyone and, therefore, they learned that they have to find a way to live together in a kind of peaceful manner and trying to stay far away from the regional conflicts, especially in Syria.

But, as you well know, the confessionalism and sectarianism, the hidden animosity between Sunnis and Shia, didn't help to keep Lebanon out of those regional conflicts. And in my opinion that is because you have a fear that if the Lebanese get involved in this kind of sectarian war it is not going to profit anyone, it will be very bad for everybody and, therefore, with the help of the international nations, either in the West or in the East – that means Europe, America and Russia – Lebanon was somehow spared this kind of conflict. But we still live in a kind of very tense situation, because of the interference from outside.

Most Western countries have grown suspicious of Russia and their interference in other countries, such as in Syria or in the Ukraine. But how do Christians in Syria and other regions, in your experience, see the intervention of Russia in the civil war? Do they see the Russians as liberators or aggressors?
I think most Christians, either in or outside of Syria, see in the military intervention by Russia a kind of deliverance, not only for Christian communities but also for the whole Syrian people, of all religions and confessions, because for the first three years, at least, there was no such intervention from Russia in Syria, we had mostly Western intervention, through the regional countries, Turkey and the Gulf States, supporting, financing and arming the so called opposition – and we still remember what Obama said about that opposition, that there was no moderate opposition – but for Machiavellian interests they kept hammering Syria and calling the Government illegitimate, while we see that it is recognised by the international community and the United Nations.

Until now, the agglomerate media of the West keep hammering on Syria and want to destroy the country, pretending that the cause of all evils is Bashar al-Assad, which is not true, and therefore, Christians saw, in the Russian intervention, a kind of salvation of Syria, because already Syria was half destroyed before the intervention of the Russian army. And although Russia, of course, have their own geopolitical interests, they have been more clear and transparent in helping the Syrian government and the Syrian people, because otherwise there would have been a hecatomb and who knows when it would have ended, because the whole conflict in Syria was based on confessionalism. It is a lie, what they used to say in the West, either in France, the USA or England, that it was a kind of popular rebellion against the dictatorship.

We know that there was a dictatorship, but what kind of alternative did we have in Syria? We had the alternative of the Islamic State. And there were lies spread that the Government created the Islamic State. It is a surreal lie, but this is the agglomerate media, they can very much manipulate the public opinion.

The group of Syriac pilgrims after mass in Fátima
The Pope was just in Armenia where he once again described the massacres of Armenians as genocide. But the victims were not only Armenians, were they?
We feel very close to the Armenian brothers and sisters, the Armenian people and Church, because we have been persecuted and killed and exposed to genocide like them, 100 years ago and many times before and after that.

You well know that what used to be called Asia Minor, present day Turkey, was well populated by Christian communities, either Greek, Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian... And now we can't anymore speak about a Christian presence, it is a very, very tiny minority left.

So we are the same, we feel the same as our Armenian brothers and sisters, because we have been not only decimated, we have been exposed to genocide. We don't exist anymore in Turkey... We have 10 to 20 thousand Syriacs, especially in the South and South Eastern region of Turkey. We had existed with important numbers, churches, monasteries, villages, and they don't exist anymore.

So we are very grateful to Pope Francis for having made this trip to be close to these people. We don't have a Syriac country, we don't have the huge numbers which lobby Western nations to think about us, but we still live in hope that the time will come when the international family will be closer to us and think about our survival, because we are left as the only communities which were very close to the primitive Church. Jesus, the blessed Mother, the apostles, they didn't speak Latin or Greek, they spoke Aramaic.

And I told the bishop of Leiria and Fátima that I would like to have also that verse of the gospel engraved in the new Basilica in Aramaic/Syriac, the language of Jesus and the Blessed Mother. I told him I'd send him the text. [A glass panel by Canadian artist Kerry Joe Kelly, in the Basilica of the Most Holy Trinity, in Fátima, is engraved with four biblical sentences in about 25 languages]

So this is our destiny, rather, it is our vocation, to be real martyrs, that is, witnesses to the gospel and also to shed our blood for Jesus.

Christians in the Middle East are divided into many different churches. Does this division weaken the Christian witness and voice, or is the diversity something to be valued?
I think we have to take it both ways.

Does it weaken? Surely it weakens. Because it is very sad to recall that in those regions where a Muslim majority has the rule, numbers are very important. The kind of rights of minorities are not the same as in civilised nations. Whatever they say, the best they can do is tolerate the existence of non-Muslim minorities. Therefore, when we are, let’s say, divided into more than one church, it is not seen as a richness for the majority.

For us, we say it is a richness, because of those traditions and the patrimony which go back to early Christianity and which enriches the Universal Church and even humanity. But therefore, especially in these times when we have this kind of fanaticism – not only attributed to the majority but it is a fact that the Muslim majority rely mostly on numbers, and as you know they have the notion of the Umma, the Islamic nation, from the Far East to the Far West they are all considered one nation, and this way they can, I think, blackmail the Western civilised countries and spread fear wherever they are, because of their numbers. Besides that you have also the oil resources and now the third element is the terrorism factor, they spread that fear among the civilised world.

So, again, being various churches, would be a richness if we were living in times where every human being would be respected, no matter the numbers or religion. But these times, where the majority wants to impose itself, it is a weakness.

How do you see Europe's response to the refugee crisis?
Since the beginning we have opposed the forced emigration for people or individuals. Especially for us it is a big threat to our survival, because the ones who emigrate do not return. Therefore, for us, migration is a very dangerous phenomenon.

The way European countries have handled this kind of migration was not the right way, because they didn't look at the roots of this migration, they instigated violence in Syria for the past five years, or more, and in Iraq they kept silent about the way the US handled the Iraqi question.

There we also see manifest hypocrisy and Machiavellianism in the way the European politicians handled that question. Because until the tragic death of Aylan, the little child, back in early September, they didn't care and they could find a way to keep the Syrian refugees, around two million of them, mostly in Turkey, with a kind of agreement between European countries and Turkey.

But after that tragic death, the media did talk about it and the European countries were kind of lost, they didn't have the right policies. We don't want that kind of migration based on forced and on sectarian wars. They should have done more to bring more peace to Syria and find a way for the Government of Syria and the opposition to find the best solution for the future. But we know the immediate geopolitical interests and now they have to face that kind of hundreds of thousands of migrants and they don't know how to handle this.

Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III and
D. António Marto, bishop of Leiria-Fátima
I think this is a kind of very wrong policies they followed. And we have said, since the beginning... It's not just the Patriarch being idealistic... We have said, since the beginning, please do not compare the situation in Syria to that in Egypt and Tunisia. In Syria the situation is much more complex, because we have ethnic, religious and confessional diversity, many minorities, and we have to find a way to stop the fighting, and whatever solution would be better than instigating that conflict.

But they have their own agenda. Since the beginning we have said that and now we are harvesting the results of these policies.

In regard to Eastern Catholic Churches, some complained that the Eastern Catholics were treated almost as second class citizens, due to issues such as the authority of Patriarchs outside of their traditional homelands, ordination of married clergy abroad, etc. Are things different with Francis?
There is no doubt that things have been changed, and they have to be changed gradually in a better understanding of the nature of Eastern traditions and the authority of Patriarchs. We keep telling the Holy See that Patriarchs are the head of their Churches and as such they have the right to take care and minister to their church communities wherever they are, be it in the Middle East or in the Western countries.

I think Pope Francis understands our grief and our needs very well, especially in these times where we have been threatened in our own survival in some of the countries in the Middle East, like Syria and Iraq, and we don't have any alternative but to follow our people and to give them the spiritual and pastoral ministry they need. Surely it is not going to be easy, but we keep fighting for this goal, because we think it is quintessential for our survival.

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