Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs of the Middle East denounced attacks on Christians and called upon the international community to work to eradicate terrorist groups. The patriarchs met on Aug. 27 at the Maronite Catholic patriarchate at Bkerke, north of Beirut, for a special summit to address the crisis in the region.
“The very existence of Christians is at stake in several Arab countries—notably in Iraq, Syria and Egypt—where they have been exposed to heinous crimes, forcing them to flee,” the patriarchs said in a statement after the summit. The church leaders lamented the indifference of both Islamic authorities and the international community over attacks against Christians, who have been in the region for 2,000 years. “What is painful is the absence of a stance by Islamic authorities, and the international community has not adopted a strict stance either,” the patriarchs said.
“We call for issuing a fatwa [Islamic religious ruling] that forbids attacks against others,” they said. “The international community cannot keep silent about the existence of the so-called ISIS,” the patriarchs said, referring to the Islamic State. “They should put an end to all extremist terrorist groups and criminalize aggression against Christians and their properties.”
The prelates stressed the need to cut off the sources of terrorism and called on the world’s major powers to deprive extremist groups of resources by compelling countries financing them to stop their support. But solutions to the Islamic State crisis must involve “dealing with the reasons that produced the miseries in the Middle East,” and harmony must be restored between the components of these countries, they said.
The church leaders also stressed “the necessity of working to liberate the towns of Nineveh and facilitate the return of the displaced to their homes, in addition to ensuring the security of these towns with local and international guarantees to prevent displacement.”
Returning to Beirut from a visit to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said, “What we, the five patriarchs, saw in Ankawa, Irbil and other cities of Kurdistan, was something indescribable in terms of the violation of human rights and the threat of disappearing of various communities among the vulnerable minorities of Northern Iraq. It is a pure and simple religious cleansing and attempted genocide.”
Patriarch Younan and Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II stayed in Iraq for six days after arriving as part of a delegation of Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs who visited Irbil to give moral and spiritual support to the beleaguered Iraqis from the Nineveh Plain. Members of displaced minority groups—Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and Shabaks—sought refuge there from their besieged towns and villages, which fell to Islamic State militants in early August.
Patriarch Younan said the most-asked question by many of the Christian refugees was, “Can we ever return?” He said “no answer could be given” to that fearful question.
A number of Catholic organizations in the United States have launched public appeals to fund assistance to Christians and other religious minorities displaced in Iraq and Syria—among them the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Jesuit Relief Service, Knights of Columbus, Catholic Relief Services and Aid to the Church in Need.
As for the threat to Lebanon from the Islamic State, particularly in light of the Islamic militants’ incursion into the country near its border with Syria in early August, the prelates underscored “the importance of the Lebanese political system that separates between the religion and the state, and which acknowledges religious freedoms.”
About 33 percent of Lebanon’s current population of four million are Christian; the majority are Maronite Catholics. But that demographic has changed with the flood of refugees from neighboring Syria, mostly Muslim, who now make up more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population.