Pope Francis has expressed concern for members of the Syriac Catholic Church who have had to flee from the “inhumanity” unfolding in the Middle East.
“Many have fled to find refuge from an inhumanity that throws entire populations on to the streets, leaving them without any means for survival,” he said in a special audience with Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Joseph III Younan and about 350 of his faithful from the Syriac Catholic Church.
The audience, made up of bishops, priests and laity from the Eastern Rite Church, came after the bishops’ annual synod, which was held in Rome on December 8-10. Participants came from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and the Holy Land, as well as from the diaspora communities in Europe and North and South America.
The Pope offered his prayers and encouragement, especially for those from “Iraq and Syria, who are living a time of great suffering and fear in the face of violence”.
“The difficult situation in the Middle East has caused and continues to cause the movement of faithful from your Church to the eparchies of the diaspora, and this brings you new pastoral challenges,” he said, such as how to remain faithful to one’s traditions while adapting and contributing to new cultural settings.
Having so many faithful move abroad “impoverishes the Christian presence in the Middle East, land of the prophets, of the first preachers of the Gospel, of martyrs and many saints, the cradle of hermitages and monasticism”, Pope Francis said.
The changes have meant the bishops have had to reflect on the “the situation of their eparchies, which need zealous pastors as well as courageous faithful, capable of proclaiming the Gospel, through discussions that are not always easy with people of different ethnicities and religions,” the Pope said.
Patriarch Younan said a major focus of their synod was on priestly formation since their communities have faced so much upheaval.
“For example, just the Eparchy of Mosul has seen one bishop and 25 priests flee” along with 15,000 Syriac Catholics when ISIS fighters swept through northern Iraq in August.
“Many of them live with the refugees now and we want to take this difficult situation into serious consideration,” he said in an interview with the website theologhia.com.
He said the Syriac Catholic community has been the minority community hit hardest by the violence in Iraq. “We were 40 per cent of the population” in the Nineveh plains, which has been “completely emptied of Christians.”
He said 60,000 members of the community fled, many of them to Kurdistan. However, unlike the Chaldean Catholics, who have their patriarchate in Baghdad, the Syriac Catholics “have no eparchies of support. Therefore we are literally displaced.”
“We have no more structures. For that reason, our people live in tents in a situation of terrible precariousness.”
The latest violence now means that more than a third of the Syriac Catholic community “has been uprooted and is in diaspora. And only God knows when we will return and if we will return”.