The conflict in Syria is taking a turning point. Militants and terrorists are fleeing. We are still waiting for the safe return of our beloved Prelates (Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazig of Aleppo). Both Prelates courageously negotiated with ISIS for the release of Father Michel Kayal and Father Maher Mahfouz and other captives. It was reported that these Prelates were kidnapped from the Turkish border near the city of Aleppo.
Where are our beloved Bishops? April 2018, is the 5th anniversary of the illegal abduction of the Orthodox Prelates of Aleppo.
Apart from the Orthodox Bishops, a Roman Catholic Jesuit Priest Paolo Dall’Oglio is missing since July 2013. Fr Paolo walked into the ISIS headquarters to negotiate a deal for the release of kidnapped victims. “We tried to negotiate with those who can help in this matter, but unfortunately, there was total silence,” said Patriarch John X of Antioch and All East, the brother of the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulous.
Unfortunately, details of the kidnapped Bishops of Aleppo remain mysterious.
“No side has actually claimed responsibility for the kidnapping but we still have hoped that the two bishops are alive, and there is more good news than bad news.” – Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.
A lot of discussion took place to find a solution for the safe return of the Bishops of Aleppo. In 2015, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II met Russian President Vladimir Putin and discussed case of Bishops of Aleppo. Patriarch also met with several political leaders in seeking a solution for the kidnapped Bishops of Aleppo.
Patriarchs John X of Antioch and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch and their offices are tirelessly working to bring justice for the abducted Bishops.
Men of God
The abducted Prelates of Aleppo were men of great courage and humility. They risked their lives to negotiate the release of their fellow clergymen and other captives. They remained in service of God and humanity at the most difficult times in their lives. The life of Christ and his suffering inspired them. We remain clueless on the whereabouts of the two Orthodox Christian Prelates.
Torture and sufferings of Christians is not something new to our world. Persecution of Christians is an everyday event in the war torn Syria. Christians are crucified and other minorities are persecuted to the maximum. Radicals and Islamic extremists raid Christian churches and homes. They destroy icons, crosses, Church buildings, kidnap people, rape women, torture, and behead people. It is a purposeful annihilation of Christians and other minorities. Many of these Jihadists come from other counties and do not have an idea of seriousness of the crimes they commit. These men are injected with radical religious outlook and are brainwashed with blind ideologies. These radical men not only harm Christians, rather they also torture Muslims. Radicals and extremists attack anyone who does not stand by their view and ideology. They also inject ISIS are a group of people motivated by money and illogical ideas.
“When we look at martyrs we see that the Church is not just one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Throughout its journey through history the Church has also been a suffering Church.” – His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II – Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch & All East.
Christians and Muslims co-existed in peace and mutual respect in Syria. Christians are not foreigners, but they are sons and daughters of these lands. President Bashar Assad has taken special care in protecting the rights of Christians and other minorities in Syria. Even the former US President Obama, has agreed that fact that President Assad protects Christians and other minorities. External interference in a peaceful country has challenged protection of Christians and minorities to a greater extend. This illegal external interference has resulted in the disintegration of Christian communities in the country. However, Syrian Christians are not willing to give up. They are fighting hard to survive the tragic situation. Syriac Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Assyrian, and other Christian churches are supporting persecuted Christians and other minorities in Syria and Iraq to overcome the catastrophic situation. These people in Syria and Iraq are living Martyrs of Christ.
“We want Syria to be always a homeland for religious tolerance and coexistence. The peaceful political solution, unconditioned dialogue and accepting the others are only ways to end the crisis in Syria.” – His Beatitude John X- Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All East.
Assyrians are one of most affected Christian communities in Syria and Iraq along with Orthodox, Roman Catholic and other Christian communities. Thousands of Assyrians have been displaced from their homeland. Militants took many under captive, and many of them where released upon paying ransom. Many others are still suffering. The life is no more the same for Syrian and Iraqi Christians. The external terrorist interference in their homelands has changed their lives like anything.
The involvement of Russian forces in Syrian situation has changed the scenario. Irrespective all criticisms, the Russian Federation and Syrian Arab forces succeeded in driving several terrorist groups and liberated large number of villages, towns, and cities in the country. Life is returning to normal in many part of the country, however, a lot of work remains to be done and it requires a huge joint effort to rebuild the nation.
West and Western governments need to have a more in-depth understanding of life in Middle East. Mostly their understanding is politically motivated. Life, culture, and ethos of Christians, and minorities usually remain undermined. Many in the West believe that Christians submit themselves to authoritarian rule in Syria. Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II has made a beautiful reply to such accusations.
The Patriarch stated that – “We have not submitted ourselves to Assad and the so-called authoritarian governments. We simply recognize legitimate governments. The majority of Syrian citizens supports Assad’s government and has always supported it. We recognize legitimate rulers and pray for them, as the New Testament teaches us. We also see that on the other side there is no democratic opposition, only extremist groups.”
We need action and prayers. A round table conference or joint declaration will not find a lasting solution. Religious extremism, external interference, political agenda has created a great disaster for common man. Radical religious outlook is on the increase and Christians remain the most persecuted and oppressed religious communities throughout the world. Radicals are infiltrating the society with the poison of religious extremism. Persecution of Christianity is not limited to Middle East; rather it happens everywhere in the world one-way or other. Christians are burned in Nigeria; they are imprisoned in Eritrea, churches and worship centers attacked in Pakistan, they are slaughtered in Egypt just because they are followers of Christ. Secularism in the West is on the rise in a dangerous manner. Several report states that employees get terminated for wearing crucifix at work in some of the Western countries. In some other countries images of cross are removed from public places for the reason that it might hurt the religious sentiments of other religious communities. The rise of unwanted and dangerous secularism is a great threat to occidental and oriental cultures. Freedom of expression and freedom to practice one’s own faith is an essential part of the Western occidental culture. Religion is not a tool to suppress or torture communities, rather it is a way to show love, care, respect and humility to each other.
We need definite intervention and support to defend freedom of worship and faith. Most powerful nations are predominantly Christian; however, these powers fail to support their persecuted brothers and sisters. I do not ignore the help and support given by several nations and NGO’s to suffering Christians. Despite these support, a large number of Christians are denied their basic rights. It is the sole duty of the majority to protect rights and freedom of minorities. Providing freedom to practice one religion is not mercy rather it is part of the basic human rights.
Christianity is a way of life that is built on the foundation of the Love of Christ. Despite their differences, East and West should join their efforts together to help these suffering children of Christ. It is not any political interest, nor economic benefit, but the love for Christ and the love for our suffering brothers and sisters that should drive us a united force.
As the Lord, Jesus Christ has said in the Gospel: ‘And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.’
‘We are being crucified in this East, suffering this great ordeal. The world looks at the cross of our agony, and is satisfied merely by expressing grief over us. Nevertheless, the power of this world will not drive us out of our land, because we are the sons of the cross and the resurrection. We have been displaced throughout history, and we are still being displaced up to this day, but each of us is called to remember that the land of Christ will not be emptied of his beloved ones and of those who were named after him two thousand years ago. And if the act of kidnapping the two archbishops and priests aims at defying our Eastern Christian presence, and uprooting it from this land, our answer is clear. Even though it has been four years since the two archbishops were kidnapped and this crisis has lasted six years, we are staying here next to the tombs of our fathers, and their hallowed ground. We are deeply rooted in the womb of this East. We are determined not to leave our land, furthermore we will defend it with our own blood and lives.’ – From the Paschal message of Patriarch John X of Antioch and Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch (2017).