Patriarch takes 'painful' stock in ISIS-ravaged Syrian town

The Patriarch estimated that about 40 percent of Syria's Christians have now left Syria.

By Oliver Maksan

NEW YORK—On a visit to the Syrian town of Al Qaryatayn, newly wrestled from ISIS control by the Syrian armed forces, a Patriarch expressed decidedly mixed feelings, joy and sorrow in equal measure.

In an interview with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II said: "This is certainly an encouraging development. But the residents who had fled now sometimes weep when they see what has become of their town. It is particularly painful for me as someone with pastoral duties to see these tears."

The Damascus-based prelate continued: "I too am shocked by the extent of the devastation. Many houses had been completely or severely damaged during the fighting. He added: "It was especially painful to see how the churches had been wilfully defiled by ISIS. Both the Syriac Catholic Saint Elian monastery and our Syriac Orthodox church had been deliberately desecrated."

Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II visiting Al Qar

The prelate said: "My main concern is to give people hope. I told them that they should thank God for their lives. Houses and churches can be built up again. A life lost cannot be restored. But as a Church we will not simply talk about it; we will also give the people material help in their reconstruction efforts wherever we can.

The Patriarch conceded that "in view of our circumstances it is not easy to overcome hatred and to ask God for the gift of forgiveness. It will take time for people to find it in themselves to do this. This is only human and understandable. But we can't get round the willingness to forgive. It is a basic element of Christian life."

The Patriarch emphasized in this connection that the Syrians were experienced in the co-existence of the religions. "In Syria there is no war between Christians and Muslims. What we're dealing with here is primarily foreign terrorists coming to fight the jihad. There are certainly now Syrians who have adopted the jihadi ideology. But these ideas come from outside, primarily from Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabism practiced there. I therefore do not see the reconciliation between Syrians of different faiths as the problem here. After all, despite the many difficulties we all lived peacefully together before the war in Syria. That was the Syria we knew."

The Patriarch estimated that about 40 percent of Syria's Christians have now left Syria, fleeing to neighboring countries or to the West.  He said: "I have no illusions. Most of them will not return. If it goes on like this, we Christians in Syria will disappear, just as we have almost disappeared in Turkey and Iraq.

 "The best way to support us is to help us stay in our homeland. Moving to the west is not a solution. Being a refugee in Europe is not a positive experience. It means you are culturally uprooted. It's not good for the refugees and it's not good for the societies that take them in.

"It would be much cheaper for Europe to help our people to stay in Syria, or temporarily in Lebanon or elsewhere in the region.”

The Patriarch amidst the rubble; ACN photo

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