Bishop Andari on plight of persecuted Christian families in the Middle East

An interview with the Titular Bishop of Tarsus of the Maronites, Antoine Nabil Andari, about the dire situations in Syria, Lebonan, and other countries in the Middle East

Titular Bishop of Tarsus of the Maronites

christian iraqi women pray during a dec. 11 mass at the maronite catholic cathedral of the resurrection in rabieh, east of beirut. (cns photo/dalia khamissy)

“For years now, due to bloody conflicts, they have been victims of unspeakable atrocities. Their conditions of life have been further aggravated in recent months and weeks.” — Synod Fathers at the 14th General Assembly of Bishops, October 5-25, 2015

The plight of persecuted Christian families in the Middle East was addressed during the Synod on the Family in Rome, October 5-25. Synod Fathers acknowledged the particular and urgent circumstances that so many Catholic families face each day. The Fathers expressed fraternal sorrow for families forced to flee their homes, and gratitude for those nations that have welcomed refugee families with generosity.

Titular Bishop of Tarsus of the Maronites, Antoine Nabil Andari

To better understand the the difficulties endured, Catholic World Report recently interviewed the Titular Bishop of Tarsus of the Maronites, Antoine Nabil Andari, Vicaire Patriarcal Maronite de Jounieh, Lebanon.

CWR: Can you please describe the political and spiritual situation in the Middle East?

Bishop Andari: You know, in Lebanon and in the Middle East, it’s been many years now that we’ve been living in a situation that is not normal, an instability in part from the lack of security, economic, and social. This began in Lebanon following the 1975 War, and continues in Syria, Iraq and other Middle-Eastern countries. And this has repercussions on the residents, on both the civil and ecclesial societies, and in a special way on the family. Families are chased from their homes, they are displaced, and therefore there are repercussions to this, sometimes breakups, or else there is emigration which is in large part that of persecuted Christians because of their faith.

For this reason these families must be supported, not only locally but also internationally, whether political or by the Church. In the current Synod on the Family, this approach is taken. We speak of the challenges. In terms social, cultural and anthropological challenges, we speak of the refugees, the persecuted, everyone. Yet how does one realize, implement this support? For it demands a welcoming, an assistance, a solidarity.

Therefore these three essential points—how do we realize them on the ground? For this, we need support from everyone. Society and the Church can do something. But not only the Church alone. Diplomatic support is also required, by disseminating information, supporting the Christian presence in the Middle East which, without Christ, without Christians, is not the cradle of Christianity.

So, how can one help? On the one hand, welcoming refugees is well and good, but this is a two-edged sword. We welcome, we bind the wounds, but at the same time we’re emptying the Middle East. It’s not easy to strike the right balance. If only we can help on site. Lebanon welcomes a lot of refugees, lately these are Syrian. Lebanon is a small country of 4 million people. Alone it’s welcoming over 1.5 million—an official number—1.5 million Syrians. Non-officially this number is higher. So how does one reconcile this welcome with the risk of Lebanon losing its own identity? And though there are many refugees fleeing the war, others come perhaps with other plans. … And now there are 1.5 million Syrians. What will come of all this?

Now many Lebanese, and notably the Christians, live in their country of adoption—there isn’t a country in the world without any Lebanese—in Europe, in America, in Australia, they’re everywhere. And so with emigration there’s always enculturation. There is also the risk of losing one’s identity. So there are many problems raised by the question you ask.

CWR: What practical measures can Catholics in America take to help Maronite Catholics today?

Bishop Andari: I believe that there are practical measures as well as ethical ones. The ethical and Christian ways are solidarity, prayer, disseminating information, and also raising awareness about this problem, but practical help in welcoming, financing, works of charity. There are a multiplicity of ways, primarily via institutions, so these methods reach their goals—and care is needed that these efforts not be manipulated left and right, so that they truly help the needy. Church organizations include Caritas, the Catholic Relief Service, various charities found in America and elsewhere. I think this is a way; it’s not the only one, but as I said, morally, religiously and also practically.

CWR: Amidst these great difficulties, persecutions and violence, perhaps your families are safe from destructive secular ideologies discussed in the Synod; or, are they?

Bishop Andari: The culture of death and life. You know, the world has become a big village [through] globalization. The media is now everywhere. From laptops, cell phones, the Internet, tablets, satellite, radio, TV—all can play a very important role in raising awareness if it targets both reality and objectivity. But, then it is very destructive when it touches upon basic ideas.

We are witnessing a new language in families; there is less talk of “family” than of “partner”, which means less commitment. There is less talk of husband and wife, but rather of cohabiting. Family values … as we [in the Synod] describe and note, are observed, are manipulated—in the name of relativism, of hedonism, of religious indifference. For the sake of secularization and other factors, the family is attacked. Gender ideology and others undermine the concept of the family.

The family is the incarnation of the Holy Family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It is the embodiment of truth—God’s Family, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So we find ourselves before this attack upon the basic concept of the family. And all this touches Middle Eastern society as we are in this world and have all these technical resources at our disposal and unfortunately we are receptive, but are unable to dialog, even with the “what’s up” and “chatting” and all that. Sometimes chatting leads to marriage, without knowing the person! So what wedding, what family?

So many things, many challenges; how to cope? But until now the Middle Eastern family remains preserved, much more than elsewhere. Yet we are seeing a change. And we are frightened, we must prevent—better to prevent than to cure; we need to be alert. This is the role of schools, universities, the Church, NGOs, everyone and society as well. Unfortunately, in some countries there is legislation against the family. To date, all is preserved. And the Christian-Muslim inter-religious dialogue is a guarantee to preserve the family. But, there is human hypocrisy; saying one thing and doing another.

CWR: The Patriarch Ephrem Joseph III Younan is greatly disturbed by what is taking place in Syria and Iraq. He said, “Christians want to leave this hell because they are persecuted.” He is saddened because since the early 1960s Catholics are no longer the majority but a minority. Do you share his view?

Bishop Andari: First Patriarch Ephrem Joseph III Younan is a patriarch of the Catholic Church. The Patriarch of the Maronite Church is Patriarch Moran Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rahi. Emigration to Lebanon is nothing new. The history of Lebanon is the story of emigration. There are reasons. There are economic challenges, there are wars, instability, over the ages. Now there is also the birth rate —though not among the Christians. There is a large birth rate among Muslims that is a difference, that there is this disproportion.

Yet we cannot speak of a Christian minority in Lebanon for now in the usual sense. They are less numerous than before, but they are not a minority. Numerically, it is true that there is an estimated 35-40% Christians in Lebanon; that is fewer but a not a minority. Also, the emigration is the extension of Lebanon. In Brazil alone, there are nine million of Lebanese origin. So, there is concern over this trend, such that in 2006 a Maronite Synod was held to study migration. At the level of the Church we have a worldwide registry of all emigrants, it is in the works, so as to maintain this link. Not to expatriate our people but to foster a tie with the mother country, with all members of the Church, so that inculturation does not make us forget our religious and national identity. Because where they are, there are private initiatives, sometimes in very good conditions, some less—so how to maintain balance? There is this present danger. We find that there is a desire to minimize the role of Christians, and it will be a stranglehold. So, this is also one of the major challenge that we must try to remedy.

CWR : Do you want the intervention of either a Western power or the United Nations?

Bishop Andari: A humanitarian, not a military intervention: humane, solidarity, political, and humanitarian. It is this kind of intervention we need most. Among churches, Episcopal conferences, partnerships between communities. These strengthen bonds and when you feel supported from outside, you get to breathe, to resist and to remain in your native land and not to emigrate.

CWR: What of the current military intervention to help stabilize some parts of the Middle East?

Bishop Andari: The reality is unfortunate. It exists. The two great superpowers are present. What will happen? There was talk of the new Middle East. What became of this talk? This Middle Eas, which is partitioned? There are several scenarios: according to religions, to ethnic groups, etc. This is not sustainable … we need to foster dialogue and moderation against terrorism and extremism. We must build instead of destroying. We are destroying churches, mosques, cultural heritage. What culture? Beasts, when they have devoured and they eaten sufficiently, stop. But the human being is ever demanding. It’s incredible what is happening.

(Special thanks to Georges Buscemi and Brian Jenkins for translation services.)

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About Mary Jo Anderson 32 Articles
Mary Jo Anderson is a Catholic journalist and speaker whose articles and commentaries on politics, religion, and culture appear in a variety of publications. She was appointed to the USCCB's National Advisory Council (NAC) from 2010 to 2014 and served as member of the NAC Executive Committee in 2011. She covered the Synods from Rome in 2014, 2015, and 2019. She is the co-author of Male and Female He Made Them: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions (Catholic Answers). Follow her on Twitter @maryjoanderson3.