Vienna and London, Asharq Al-Awsat—It is Christmas season in Austria and a chilly, drizzly evening in its capital Vienna. The city’s busy Christmas market at the foot of its grand Town Hall beams cheerfully with multi-colored lanterns as steam radiates from its hot punch stalls. Nearby, a Syrian family is at home anticipating the arrival of a special guest: The Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, on an official visit from Damascus, Syria. The sofas in their living room have been dutifully arranged in a circular position with the Patriarch’s chair at the center; pictures of him have been hung around the house and a large fruit bowl and plates of homemade Syrian sweets lie in wait on the coffee table.
As the blue lights of his police escort flash outside everyone rushes to the window to watch the convoy drive up. Mar Ignatius Aphrem II enters the house, followed by his clergy, to a greeting of ululations and a kiss on the hand from each family member. He then performs a blessing and the group sings a hymn in the ancient Syriac language, before all sit. The Patriarch, who has come from a meeting with the Austrian President Heinz Fischer and various groups in the Austrian Syrian Orthodox community, does not usually make house calls. The visit has garnered much excitement—not least that of the neighbors, also a Syrian Christian family.
Syriacs, including Assyrians, Chaldeans and Arameans, are one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, originating from Mesopotamia—present day Syria, Iraq and Turkey—but with a growing diaspora in Europe and the US. Most in the community still speak in the pre-biblical Aramaic and Syriac language. “These are different names of the same people who have been [living in the Middle East] for thousands of years,” Patriarch Aphrem II told Asharq Al-Awsat. He emphasized that the unrest, increase in terrorism and continued violence against these communities means they are now “facing a challenge to their existence” in the Arab world as never before.
Forty-nine year-old Aphrem was ordained as head of the Syriac Orthodox Church in March 2014 after the death of the former Patriarch Zakka I the same month following a long illness. Since taking office he has made huge efforts to heal a growing split within the church community. Aphrem, born in Qamishli, northern Syria, also understands that he has undertaken the role at a challenging time in Syria’s history. “After living in the US for 18 years [serving as a bishop] I could have said no, I could have refused, but I’m back in the Middle East now and living in Damascus.”
He said his priority for now as patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church “is to visit the people [around Syria and Iraq]. They are all wounded, whether physically, spiritually or psychologically. It is our duty to stand by them, to make them feel that there’s somebody who cares about them because they feel abandoned by the people in the West. In Syria, Muslims also feel abandoned.”
He added that “the people who have come [to the church] to ask for help are not only Christians, the majority are actually Muslims. The church in Syria is playing a huge role in supporting both Muslims and Christians in terms of financial support, healthcare facilities, housing, education and development projects.”
Aphrem made his first official visit to Austria primarily to lead the consecration service of the new Syrian Orthodox church in Vienna—a much larger building that was partly donated by the Protestant church to accommodate the growing Syriac Orthodox community here. “Once we have better circumstances we need to sit down and to plan for the next few years in terms of reorganizing our church in light of this mass migration from the Middle East,” Aphrem said, expressing deep concern over the exodus of Christians from the region.
It is thought that a third of Syria’s 2 million Christians have now fled the country due to the recent unrest, something that the Patriarch says troubles him deeply, as it raises the specter of the extinction of the faith in the region and the death of its adherents’ culture. “Christians in Iraq and Syria are the indigenous people of these lands and they have been there since the beginning of Christianity, as Christians, but before that also as Syriac speaking people of Assyrian, Armenian or Chaldean descent,” he says. “For them to leave this area is to uproot them from their homeland, and shorten the life of the community. That’s very worrying.”
This year has also witnessed ISIS’s rampage across Iraq—a disaster for Iraq’s remaining indigenous minority communities. The Patriarch has visited Iraq three times since the invasion of the city of Mosul by ISIS, first in June and then in August “immediately after the expulsion of Christians from the Nineveh Plains,” he said. His last visit was just over a month ago. Each time, he described the situation as “heartbreaking.”
Most families fleeing ISIS in northern Iraq were forced to abandon their villages and seek refuge in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil. For a time, many were sleeping on the streets under makeshift shelters. “Thank God during my last visit [to Erbil a month ago] I did not see anybody under tents on the streets. They were all housed, either in containers or in apartments—three families to an apartment rented for them by the church,” Aphrem said, adding that “their situation is still really bad; the majority of these people still want to go back to their villages and towns in northern Iraq. But the longer the situation goes on the more people will want to leave the Middle East.”
In Syria, Aphrem has been criticized by some within the ranks of the opposition for what they perceive to be his support for the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, particularly regarding an interview he gave to The Syrian Arab News Agency not long after his ordination. In it he called for mass participation in Syria’s June presidential elections as well as cooperation between the government and the opposition. “I was not aware of any public criticism of my role, but I was never supporting any specific person,” Aphrem counters. “We as Christians did not take sides in this conflict. We did not oppose anybody, we did not stand by anybody. We want to live peacefully, but we want to protect our people inside Syria and outside Syria too. We have to be with the law and order of the country.”
He added that “the best guarantee for us Christians is a strong civil government, that is what we are hoping for and looking for. We know that there were mistakes and there are mistakes by the government of Syria, and [that] there were many freedoms and liberties lacking in Syria. We know the country was in need of reforms, political, economic and other reforms, and we hope and pray that the new Syria will be based on equal citizenship for everybody, on equal rights and duties for everybody and the opportunity for everybody to help. We hope and pray that all those Syrians who love their country come back and work together—government and opposition work together—towards rebuilding Syria and building peace in Syria.”
Aphrem stressed: “Syria belongs to its people. And its people should be able to come together and rebuild it again. If the Syrian people are left for themselves, with support from the international community, without taking sides, I believe they will be able to pull together, establish peace and rebuild Syria. People need to be assured that they can trust each other and work together. As religious leaders we have a role to bring people together to show them it’s still possible to accept each other.”
The majority of Syria’s religious leaders are anxious to protect their community from recriminations from all sides in the current conflict. There is also increasing concern about the growing extremist and foreign elements in the opposition movement in Syria and in neighboring countries. “Christians are very nervous in Lebanon. Yesterday a Lebanese Muslim soldier was executed in Lebanon by one of these groups [Al-Nusra Front or ISIS], which means they are active there,” Aphrem said.
The kidnapping of two prominent Syriac and Greek Orthodox archbishops from Aleppo in Syria last year—who were on a mission to rescue two other kidnapped priests—also remains a source of worry for the Syrian Christian community at home and abroad. “It’s a big blow to the church, but I believe it’s also a strong message to Christians in Syria and in the Middle East that they are not welcome and that their presence here is threatened, which is very frightening to us,” said Aphrem.
When asked what he thinks the motives behind the abduction were, he said: “I see it as an attempt to drive all Christians out.” He added: “When you strike the shepherd in the flock it disperses and that’s what happens when you kidnap a leading figure in the Christian community.”
Although no credible reports about the fate of the missing clerics have surfaced, the Patriarch said the church is continuing to hold out hope and work for their release. “I have asked presidents, government and church officials around the world to help us. When I was in the US, the State Department assured us at the beginning that they knew where the archbishops were. When we asked whether they could get us a message, a photo or a recording from them they said ‘we cannot, but we know where they are and they are being treated well.’ That was the end of last year. Since the beginning of this year we haven’t heard anything from the US, or from anybody else for that matter.”
A US State Department official confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that on December 12 American diplomats had met with representatives of the church to discuss the status of Archbishops Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi. The official added that the State Department did not have any reliable information regarding their kidnappers, whereabouts, or current condition, but said that efforts to secure their release were continuing.
“We have repeatedly condemned the targeting of religious figures, or any other civilians, for kidnapping or other violence, and have likewise condemned the destruction of churches and other religious and cultural property. Those individuals responsible for these senseless acts of violence must be identified and held fully accountable,” the official added.
In Iraq, Christians have been targeted in attacks by Al-Qaeda inspired groups since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. For over a decade, Middle Eastern Christian organizations have been calling for the international community to establish a safe haven in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains for its vulnerable minorities, a call echoed earlier this year by dozens of academics based in Western universities who have dedicated their careers to studying the community’s culture, language and way of life. The Patriarch echoed these calls once more, and criticized both the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government, which both claim jurisdiction in the areas that have been inhabited by Christians for thousands of years yet did not come to the defense of the inhabitants when ISIS overran the area.
“Christians were left alone when ISIS attacked, nobody helped them; nobody protected them, neither their government in Baghdad nor the Kurdish regional government,” Aphrem said, adding: “We have been asking the international committee to come forward and to bring these people back to their homes and villages and to provide international protection for them until they are able to protect and defend themselves.”
An hour before speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat Aphrem received the news that the US are indeed reserving funds for arming and training Christians in the Nineveh Plains, an historic development for the community. “As a church, of course, we don’t talk about arming groups and killing people but we do talk about self-defense and these people have the right to defend themselves,” Aphrem said.
Despite this, however, Aphrem said that he realized the area’s Christians still needed the help of Baghdad and Erbil. “They will need the help of the international community to do that as well as the cooperation of the regional powers whether it’s the government of Baghdad or the Kurdish regional government.”
“No one has been able to protect our people in the region so far so we believe it’s also the responsibility of the international community to do so. We ask that they be protected just like the Kurds were a few years ago and given the chance to build up their defense units,” he added.
As his conversation with Asharq Al-Awsat wound to its conclusion, Aphrem also reflected on the situation in Syria and lamented the fragmentation of its society. “Syria was one of the most tolerant countries in the Middle East in terms of people of different religions working together and accepting each other, not just tolerating, but accepting each other, working with each other,” he said.
Despite the bloodletting of the past three years, this is a belief he says he still holds. “Religious division was not at all to be found on the streets in the market place or among the people. This is all new to us. We believe certain ideologies have been exported to Syria and as a result we see ISIS, Al-Nusra and other groups claiming the lives of both Muslims and Christians. The majority of the Muslim people in Syria are not in accord and support of these groups,” he maintained.
Aphrem also claimed that despite the violence and chaos, he held out some hopes for the future, hopes rooted in his faith in God and ordinary men and women. “I trust in the people,” he said. “I know the people are suffering now but their humanity is there, which is from God and that will surpass and will overcome all other kinds of uncertainty, fear, anger, violence—these are all secondary things to their humanity.”
“So I believe that our work will be very tough and our mission will be very difficult but I also trust in God and I also trust in the people and the bishops who work with me and the clergy and all good peace-loving people who are giving their best to help others,” he said.