Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Easter Churches, leads a prayer during an ecumenical prayer service with Christian patriarchs from the Middle East Sept. 9 in Washington.

CNS PHOTO | TYLER OSBURN

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Easter Churches, leads a prayer during an ecumenical prayer service with Christian patriarchs from the Middle East Sept. 9 in Washington.

September 22, 2014
MARK ZIMMERMANN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

United in the suffering of their people, five Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs from the Middle East urged Westerners to take action to help ensure that Christians and other minorities can remain in the Middle East.

"Christians are not (just) looking for humanitarian aid. They are looking for humanitarian action, to save Christianity in the Middle East," said Catholicos Aram of Cilicia, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church.

The Armenian patriarch said a comprehensive strategy is needed to defeat the Islamic State extremism that "threatens the very survival of Christianity" in places like Iraq and Syria.

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan

It is essential to promote human rights, pluralism and religious freedom, he said during a panel discussion Sept. 11 in Washington.

The panel was organized by In Defense of Christians, a new group formed to promote awareness of the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and to advocate on their behalf to U.S. policymakers.

ATROCITIES

In a keynote address, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II of Antioch spoke of meeting a Syrian Christian father whose wife and two children had been murdered and whose bodies were thrown down a well.

The patriarch also described meeting a Christian boy among 50 families who had fled for their lives and taken refuge in a small, crowded church hall in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

The boy opened his arms, saying, "We have no place!" Others were sleeping in tents, on the street or in parks, the patriarch said.

"Is there no place for Christians in the land of their ancestors?" asked Patriarch Aphrem.

He and other religious leaders have written to the United Nations and the European Union seeking help, he said.

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan called on Muslim leaders to issue a statement "to condemn the atrocities committed against Christians and other minorities" in the Middle East.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

He also called on "the family of nations" to support religious freedom and the separation of Church and state in the region.

Patriarch Younan called for the international community to find a solution that would allow thousands of Christian refugees to return to their homes in northern Iraq and Syria.

"We have the right to live in our own land, the land of our ancestors for millennia," he said. "We keep hope in the Lord, who repeated many times in the Bible, 'Don't be afraid.'"

During the patriarchs' panel, Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham urged that a peaceful solution be found.

"We call on America to be peacemakers, not warmakers," he said. "It's time for the world to realize that no one wins a war."