A shepherd would never encourage his flock to flee, yet that’s exactly the dilemma facing at least one prominent Christian leader in the Middle East. Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan is mourning the recent attacks against Iraqi Christians while also grieving for what he fears is a future marked by jihad and the continued rapid decline of Christianity in the volatile region, particularly Iraq.
On Oct. 31, 50 people, including two priests, were killed during Mass in Baghdad when armed men burst into Our Lady of Salvation church. On Nov. 10, 11 roadside bombs were detonated in three primarily Christian areas in Baghdad, in addition to attacks on other Christian neighborhoods that same day.
The violence against Christians clearly is escalating, leaving the faithful and their leaders feeling powerless. “For those who survive, what can we tell them?” Patriarch Younan says Nov. 11, addressing a group of North American journalists. “They feel abandoned by everyone.”
Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Youssef III Younan. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
Human Rights Watch says in 2008, Iraq was home to 675,000 Christians—down from 1 million in 2003, when the United States led the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein from power.
Mirella Chucrallah, a social worker who aids displaced Iraqis in Lebanon for the organization Caritas, says the current wave of emigration consists of Iraqis who initially resisted departing their homeland. Many Baghdad residents fled to the north country but now see such a widespread threat, they feel compelled to leave Iraq entirely.
“They left Baghdad for other cities with hope to return,” Chucrallah says. “But now, nothing is left. They are totally desperate now.” In many cases, Iraqis are coming to Lebanon on three-month tourism visas and then staying illegally. Chucrallah says Lebanon is the best option for many families because countries such as Jordan and Syria often will not grant visas to Iraqi men.
Mirella Chucrallah, Caritas social worker. (photo by Jennifer Scroggins)
While Chucrallah and Caritas work to provide legal, medical, emotional and physical support to families in flight, Patriarch Younan ponders what can be done to stem the exodus in the first place.
“It’s a train we can’t stop because of many factors,” he says. His foremost concern is providing protection for Christians still in Iraq. While Sunni and Shiite Muslims battle for control of the country, the Christian minority is easy to attack as terrorists take advantage of the lack of government, Patriarch Younan says.
He notes that there are some 50 Christian institutions in Baghdad, including hospitals and schools that serve Muslims as well as Christians. Yet Patriarch Younan says doctors are spending the night in their hospitals, afraid to leave for fear of violence.
He also points out that many attacks take place during the day—not under cover of darkness. “Where are the security forces?” he asks, a tone of urgency in his voice.
Patriarch Younan, who served the Syriac Catholic community in New Jersey from 1986-2009, says the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003 is not to blame for the Muslim-Christian issues at work in Iraq now. “The main issue with killing Christians, persecuting them, is neither Israeli nor U.S. intervention in Iraq,” Patriarch Younan says. “Of course, it has aggravated it because it wasn’t well-planned. “There was a dictator in Iraq and the man could oppress his people as he wanted, and few democratic nations would criticize him because of oil interests.”
Patriarch Younan says he visited Iraq in 2001 and saw a country where “people were like in a large prison.” Now, he says, Hussein is gone, but Christians are the weakest segment of the population and they are viewed as “infidels” by Muslims, who will not distinguish religion from politics. The intra-Islamic conflicts, Patriarch Younan says, make him skeptical that the U.S. will be able to make good on its plans to withdraw combat troops from Iraq.
“I don’t think the U.S. government will be so naive as to withdraw completely from Iraq,” he says. “We all know what kind of tensions exist between Sunnis and Shia. (The U.S. has) to stay, not just for the region, but for the whole world. “They have to be careful until we have a strong government in Iraq. Iran will be the first to get hegemony on Iraq.”
Patriarch Younan’s frustration is obvious as he speaks. In the Middle East, it seems religious leaders also are called to be political leaders, even if only tangentially. Patriarch Younan describes the situation of Christians in Iraq as “a kind of modern genocide.” He calls for the Iraqi government, such as it is, to protect Christians as “true citizens” and exhorts the international community to intercede on behalf of the Christian community.
The suffering has to end, he says. “Enough is enough. They need not only words, but acts.” Click here for more daily reports from Lebanon.View ACO in Lebanon in a larger map