Patriarch Aphrem, head of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

Beware making Mideast Christians 'collateral damage,' patriarch warns

  • September 1, 2015

Updated 03/09/15
MARKHAM, ONT. - Christians in the Middle East should not be considered as collateral damage of the wars in Syria and Iraq, says Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II during his first apostolic visit to Canada.

Patriarch Aphrem, head of the Syrian Orthodox Church, said that Western countries need to stop helping groups that, if they rise to power, will treat Eastern Christians as second- and third-class citizens.

“It is my duty and the duty of every Christian in the Middle East to make our voice heard,” the patriarch told The Catholic Register Aug. 30.

“I believe what’s missing here is the West is so focused on removing certain regimes in these countries, for example, removing Bashar al-Assad from Syria, that they do not see the side damage that they are causing to the communities there.”

The uprising against Assad contributed to the fundamentalist Islamic State forces sweeping in under the radar in 2014 and taking control of vast swaths of Iraq and Syria and imposing its fundamentalist Islamist theology on these areas.

Under the secular government in Syria, Aphrem said Christians are able to practice their faith, but if the Islamic State push succeeds, they will become subject to extreme Islamic rule. That has been seen in areas the Islamic State has overrun where Christians are being forced to renounce their faith or die.
Aphrem, who was elected patriarch on May 31, 2014, has spent his first year getting to know the Syrian Orthodox Church around the world.

“I’m here, first of all, to pay a visit to our faithful parishioners who have settled mainly in two areas, which is Toronto and Montreal,” he said. “I’m here to pray with them... to get to know them and to allow them to get to know their spiritual father and their servant.”

His visit to Toronto on Aug. 30 saw him bless a new church, St. Barsaumo Syriac Church in Markham.

He also met with religious and government leaders during a private banquet, including Cardinal Thomas Collins, Fr. Fady Bouktour of Holy Family Coptic Catholic Church in Etobicoke and Jason Kenney, Minister of National Defence and Multiculturalism.

The patriarch also visited Montreal on Sept. 4 where he met with Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine, Bishop Paul- Marwan Tabet of the Catholic Maronite Eparchy of Canada and NDP MP Maria Mourani.

Although this is his first apostolic visit to Canada, he has made several visits to the country during his time as Metropolitan Archbishop of the Eastern United States under the episcopal name, Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim.

“I see more and more of our people coming here from the Middle East,” he said. “I’m happy to see that there is a community to receive them here and of course a larger Christian community.”

Aphrem said Christians around the world must continue the discussion of a future as one Church. This was a major issue he discussed with Pope Francis when they met in Rome in June.

Together, they discussed how the Vatican can play a role in influencing European governments to change how they do business concerning the war in Syria. They also discussed other important issues, such as encouraging young people to uphold their faith and fixing the date of Easter celebrations for both Churches.

“I know (Francis) prays on a daily basis for Syria and he calls Syria, ‘Beloved Syria,’ ” said Aphrem. “In the coming Easter, there is going to be five weeks of difference and this is unacceptable, of course... and I told him that we would be the first Church to join that effort if the Vatican does indeed fix the dates.”

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