“Our future is in the hands of the Lord…”
Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan, Syriac-Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East of the Syriacs, made this statement during an interview with Catholic World Report days prior to meeting with Pope Francis in Italy.
The Patriarch gave the interview leading up to Pope Francis’ July 7 day trip to the southern Italian city of Bari where the Holy Father will join other Christian Church leaders, including Patriarch Younan, in a day of ecumenical reflection and prayer for the suffering Christians in the Middle East.
Because of wars and persecution in the Middle East, many families have been forced to abandon their historical homeland in search of security and a better future. The percentage of Christians in the region has fallen dramatically. Prior to the First World War Christians represented 20% of the its population; and now, only 4%.
His Beatitude spoke candidly on various themes, including the visit, his people’s situation and whether dialogue with Islam is possible and realistic. He also expresses how he and other Christian leaders have been denouncing the situation, making necessary appeals, and expressing what is needed for a long time now, but that they “need ears to listen,” and not just media, but those who can have an impact on the destiny of vulnerable minorities.
This day in Bari came to fruition after different Churches and Patriarchs proposed the idea of a gathering of this nature directly to the Holy Father during their visits to Rome, an idea which Pope Francis welcomed. Bari—the city that conserves the relics of Saint Nicholas and venerates the Mother of God as Odegitria—is a symbolic place, where there is a great presence of the East in the West, and a place of pilgrimage.
The Patriarchs of the Oriental Catholic Churches in the Middle East, including Coptic, Syriac, Maronite, Chaldean, and Armenian, will all be present, other than the Melkite patriarch, who will be represented by the Metropolitan of Aleppo, and the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The July 7 meeting will include prayer on the seafront with the faithful, and the moment of reflection and mutual listening between the Holy Father and the heads of Churches and ecclesial communities of the Middle East, each bringing his point of view, observations and proposals. This will take place behind closed doors.
At the beginning of the public prayer and at the end of the meeting, when the doors of the Basilica of Saint Nicholas will be reopened, the Holy Father is expected to speak. The Pope and others present will go to the parvis and will release doves that will have been given to them by some children, as a prophetic gesture to give back hope, especially to children and young people of the Middle East who have suffered, including from indifference.
Here is our interview with Patriarch Younan:
CWR: Your Beatitude, this encounter planned in Bari is an unprecedented initiative. What should we expect?
Patriarch Younan: It is too early to talk about the encounter of Bari. Our expectation—as Christians called to respond to Middle East Christians’ needs given their very critical situation—is to persevere in the hope that the so-called “civilized world” deal with their flight in effective honesty.
CWR: Pope Francis has chosen the southern Italian city of Bari—which houses the relics of St. Nicholas, a saint very revered both in the West and in the East, and by both Orthodox and Catholics—as the venue for this gathering. What is the meaning of this choice?
Patriarch Younan: It is symbolic to have this historic encounter in Bari, since the city is a sort of window of the Western Church looking out onto the Eastern Churches. Pope Francis is very concerned about the survival of Christians in the Middle East and wants to strengthen the ecumenical bond between the Latin Church and the Churches of the East. We hope to convince those mighty ones who grasp others’ power that the native Christians of the Middle East deserve awareness, help and protection, for they are the ‘indigenous remnants’ of that ancient civilized region.
CWR: How important is this meeting for Christians in the Middle East? So many of them live through ordeals daily. Do you believe that from this meeting they will receive some concrete help?
Patriarch Younan: It is obvious that the situation in various Middle Eastern countries is different. Still there is a hope that our voice will be heard, and not only by the media, but most importantly, by those who can have an impact on the destiny of vulnerable minorities in Muslim majority countries.
CWR: Pope Francis recently expressed his concern that “a Middle East without Christians would no longer be the Middle East,” when recently addressing the Reunion of Aid Agencies for the Oriental Churches (ROACO) in the Vatican. Will this gathering in Bari confront the issue of how to help Middle Eastern Christians stay in their homeland?
Patriarch Younan: We keep saying this statement now for [a] long time, but [there are] no ears to listen!
CWR: Do you believe that today there is a future for Christians in the Middle East?
Patriarch Younan: Our future is in the Lord’s hands.
CWR: Inter-religious dialogue between Islam and Christianity is a very difficult dialogue. Do you think that Islam is really compatible with the rights and freedoms of individuals?
Patriarch Younan: I am sorry, such a dialogue is unrealistic. Because only humans, individuals or peoples, can undergo dialogue. Enough pretending that there are ways to dialogue with Islam, a religion where [there is] no will to separate religion from all aspects of life and where [there is] no possibility of an exegesis.
CWR: Many Christians of Middle Eastern Churches, who emigrated abroad, have established very large communities in countries such as the United States. What message is being conveyed to them?
Patriarch Younan: Those Christians forced into emigration, mostly because of religious oppression in their homeland, have to treasure their heritage being the true remnants, the Apostolic Churches. The heads of Latin Churches in Western Europe, should welcome them as in the Americas and Australia.
CWR: Ultimately, what are the objectives of this encounter?
Patriarch Younan: Striving to live up to the Lord’s Commandment: ‘to love one another, as I have loved you’ (Jn 13:34).