News 21 Sep 2023

Syrian Patriarch: Despite all the difficulties, it has been "a time of great grace"

Patriarch Youssef Absi, of the Melkite Catholic Church, thanks ACN for the support it has given to Christians in Lebanon and Syria, but says that there will be no stability in the Middle East without justice for Palestine.

Christians in the Middle East continue to leave their traditional homelands, despite all the encouragement their churches give them to remain, says the head of the Melkite Catholic Church, Patriarch Youssef Absi. 

The Patriarch has been in charge of the Melkite Catholic Church for six years, a difficult period, with the civil war in Syria, the pandemic and a terrible financial situation in both Syria and Lebanon. “All this has led to slow progress in the work. It prevented us from carrying out our projects more quickly”. Nonetheless, he describes it as a “time of great grace”. 

With most of his faithful living in Syria and Lebanon, the Melkite Patriarch says that it is increasingly difficult to give hope to the Christians, especially the young. “There have always been waves of emigration. Nowadays it is a mix of economic, social and political reasons”, he told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), during a visit to the headquarters of the international charity, in Koenigstein, Germany.

“Many of them are desperate, they no longer have confidence in their country. That's why they are leaving. We did a lot at the beginning, to keep them in the country, but the situation has not improved. We are still doing everything possible to help our faithful, and to provide them with essential services. But we cannot replace the governments. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, we do not see a short-term solution. Without support, we can no longer convince them to stay.”

The situation in Syria could be ameliorated if the West lifted the sanctions which, he says, are weighing down most heavily on the civilian population. “I think that our friends can exert pressure in one way or another on their governments, and sometimes even on the religious leaders, to help in this direction or to ensure that the sanctions are lifted”, he said, echoing the appeal made recently by other Middle Eastern hierarchs.

Another decisive step in the right direction would be for the international community to finally find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The Palestinian cause is the main cause. This is very clear to us here. Without a solution for the Palestinian situation, there is no solution for the Middle East. That means to give the Palestinians their independence. At the moment we see that some Arab governments are starting to normalize their relations with Israel, but this is not going to help because there continues to be great enmity between the people”, Patriarch Absi said.

Despite all difficulties, the effort must continue, the Patriarch added, since the prospect of a Middle East with no Christians is unthinkable. Patriarch Youssef Absi offered the example of Lebanon, the country in the region with the highest proportion of Christians, which John Paul II famously described as a mission in itself. “Lebanon is very important, not only for the Middle East but for all the world, because the coexistence between the Muslims and the Christians is an example for all the world.”

“Now, in the West, there are many Muslims, and there are already some challenges, so the mission of Lebanon is to manifest how Muslims and Christians can live together. The presence of Christians in the Middle East should not be an issue. It's normal for churches to exist there and they should remain there”, said Patriarch Youssef Absi.

As persecution of Christians in the Middle East reached its peak in 2013, with the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group, some voices began to defend the idea of creating a Christian safe zone, either a country or an autonomous region located, for example, in the Nineveh Plain, in Iraq.

The majority of the Christian religious leaders, however, have been opposed to this idea, and Patriarch Youssef Absi is no exception. “It would be suicide, it is not a solution”, he said. 

For better or for worse, he added, Christians and Muslims have a history of coexistence, but carving out an exclusively Christian area would anger other citizens of the country. “You have the right to live in a large country, why would you choose to live in a small country surrounded by people who have become your enemies?”

The situation in Syria and Lebanon may be dramatic, according to the leader of the Melkite Church, but it would be desperate without the aid provided by ACN. 

“We have noticed that ACN has doubled, and sometimes tripled, its aid during the last decade. The results are clearly visible, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts, we can see that you really want to be present in Syria and Lebanon, in a special way.”

“It is not just financial or economic aid, it's the spirit with which they work, the generosity, the love, the smile. We give thanks to God for having sent us brothers and sisters of such calibre, who are committed Christians”, the Patriarch concluded.

- By Filipe d’Avillez & Maria Lozano 

Featured Image: Visit of His Beatitude Youssef Absi to ACN International. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.

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