In this interview with ACN the bishop speaks about the challenges facing Syriac Catholics in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and about his disappointment with the political situation in a country still struggling to find a stable government, three months after the elections.
Could you tell us a bit about the Syriac Catholic community in Lebanon?
Our church is one of the smallest in Lebanon and in the world, in terms of numbers. But it is an old church, it was founded in Lebanon in 1782, and since that time we have had families here, but the major part of the community arrived after the terrible genocide in Turkey, in 1915. Now there are about 4,000 Syriac Catholic families, mainly in Beirut and its surroundings. We number about 16,000, out of approximately 140,000 worldwide.
Lebanon has a confessional based political system. Does the Syriac Catholic Community feel represented in this system?
Not really. We are not represented in the Parliament, and there are no opportunities for Syriac men or women to reach top places in ministries, Government or Parliament. When our grandparents arrived in Lebanon our patriarchs suggested that they get involved in economy and trade, rather than politics. As a result, our presence in politics was always very shy.
As bishop in charge of youth ministry, is this something you will try to encourage amongst the youth?
For the first time, three of our young people ran for election this year. One of them, Cynthia Zarazir, was elected. This was a new experience for us. We encourage our young people to be involved in politics because we are responsible for our country, not only spiritually, but also politically. When we talk about law and justice, discrimination, peace, and development, we have to be involved in politics. We no longer hold the view of our old patriarchs that we should just take care of business.
Part of the problem in Lebanon seems to be the inability to form a working government. There were elections recently, are you hopeful things will change?
I have hope in the strong will of the Lebanese people. In politics, I do not have so much hope that things are going to be different. After the Beirut port blast, for a certain period of time, I lost my hope in this country. I am from that part of Beirut, and for me it was terrible to hear what I heard and see what I saw: to see your capital, your country, your city, totally destroyed. None of my close friends remained in Lebanon, they all left after the blast.
The Beirut blast destroyed the hope in my heart, in this government and these politicians, but that was where I found my mission, why I prefer to stay in Lebanon and not go abroad. Things are going to be better tomorrow, but it will start from the voice of the people, of all the people, because we want to live, and we love our country, despite all the bad things we face each day. In that, I have hope, yes.
Most Syriacs in the Middle East live in Iraq and Syria. What is life like for them now?
Most of our young people are trying to get out of Iraq and Syria. They find it difficult to stay in Iraq because they have lost confidence in their government, and they have faced so much persecution. More than 60,000 Syriacs were forced to leave the Nineveh Plain in one night. In total, more than 120,000 Christians were obliged to flee to Kurdistan, and from there they have been going to the west. A good number returned home, and that is a good sign because we have a mission in this part of the Middle East. But many families are still trying to get out.
Things are worse in Syria because the war is still going on. Military service is the biggest issue for our young men because you have to serve for 9 or 10 years. After that time, if you return alive, you need to start from zero. This is in all of Syria.
Things are worse in the Kurdish-controlled area. Our young men have to serve with the Kurdish military, and then with the Syrian military. That is why in Syria it is so rare to find young men, they are all leaving. After five years abroad, if they pay US$8,000 dollars they can return without their military service. We are losing an entire generation.
ACN has been supporting Christians in all these countries. Do you have a message for the benefactors?
First of all, thank you! Thank you for helping us. We are all one family, one body of Christ.
I would also say that maybe we can give something back to the churches that are better off, by sharing with you the wealth that we have, the treasures that are found in our culture, our spiritual heritage and legacy. We can share the maturity that we have gained in our daily lives by living with Muslims, with Druze, facing war, death, instability and all kinds of persecutions.
- By Filipe d’Avillez
Featured Image: A painting in the center of Beirut. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.