Munich (AINA) -- The supreme head of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Patriarch Mor Ignatios Aphrem II, and Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, attended the 55th International Munich Security Conference (MSC) held on February 15-17 in Munich. Both were also invited to join a panel dicussion organised under the chaimanship of Dr. Philipp Hildmann of Hanns-Seidel Foundation (HSS), held on Saturday, February 16th. The panel was titled Dawn of a new era? Future Perspective of Religious Minorities in the Middle East and focused on the post-ISIS situation in Syria and Iraq.
The panel was opened by Markus Ferber, European MP and Vice Chairman of the Hans-Seidel Foundation. Speakers included H.H. Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, H.B. Louis Rapahel I Cardinal Sako, Patriarch of Babylon, Volker Kauder, Member of the German Bundetag, Chairman (ret.) of the CDU/CSU-Parliamentary Group in German Parliament (2005-18), and Düzen Tekkal, Founder & Chairwoman of hawar.help, Berlin. The session was moderated by Oliver Rolofs, Co-Founder & Partner of connecting trust, Munich.
In his speech, Markus Ferber touched upon the killings, forced migration and destruction caused in 2014 with the emergence of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. The death squads of the terrorist militia of IS inflicted unimaginable atrocities against those unwilling to submit to their radical interpretation of Islam. Yazidis and Assyrians became a main target. "Eighty percent of homes and infrastructure in the Nineveh Plains," a central region in Iraq where Assyrians (also known as Chaldeans and Syriacs) live, were destroyed, said Ferber. Yezidi children and women were abducted and sold as slaves. With respect to Syria, where the conflict has been ongoing for eight years, Ferber pointed to the death toll of a half million people and eight million refugees. In the context of the defeat of IS Ferber raised the question, whether this could be the beginning of a new era for the Yezidis and Christians minorities and what future perspectives and what role Germany could take.
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Volker Kauder, an early and outspoken advocate of the topic of religios freedom in the German Parliament, stated that "Christians are the most persecuted religious group" in the world and gave examples ranging from China, Pakistan to the Middle East. The situation has not changed too much over the past years. Particularly, states that have a authoritarian ruling system "have a different understanding of religious freedom and do not accept our key values (Leitbild)."
On whether Germany is ready to help, Kauder mentioned the Kurdish request for military support after IS took over Mosul. According to Kauder, Germany asked Massud Barzani, the then President of Kurdish region in northern Iraq, why Kurdish forces abandoned Assyrians when IS attacked the Nineveh plains. Barzani's reply was "yes, they had to flee, because they had no weapons." This set the scene for the German Parliament deciding to deliver weapons into a conflict zone and support and train the KRG fighters against IS.
Generally, persecution of Christians is strongest where the authority of the state is weak. "This is true for many states in the Middle East where even Muslims fighting with each other," stressed Kauder. Hence the "probability of Christian-free zones" is a realistic scenario, he said, and many refugees "are afraid to return to their homes, as they don't feel they are welcome." They have to realize that their homes have been occupied by others. They miss the necessary security and a future perspective for their children.
However, "Christian presence is essential for the countries of the Middle East," concluded Kauder. Christians are carrier of enlightment. Enlightenment is based on reasoning; "reasoning is the gift of God," he added. Christians can contribute to education and health. "We have to enable them to work that way," he concluded
The Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Mor Ignatios Aphrem II relayed greetings from Damascus, known as the city of the Apostle Paul; he also expressed gratitude to HSS for the invitation to the summit. He lamented how casually Christians "are blamed as supporters of the regime," ignoring that "we are struggling to survive in a country where we lived for thousands of years -- even prior to Islam and Christianity emerging in the region." Touching to Volker Kauder's question whether the Christians have a future in Syria, the Patriarch pointed to the fact that "Christians on the whole remained neutral" in the conflict. Regardless, their churches and homes were targeted and destroyed. The Patriarch pointed to the two Archbishops of Aleppo -- Greek Orthodox Boulos Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, who were kidnapped in April 2013 and remain missed since (AINA 2013-04-22).
The Patriarch underlined that currently the security situation is improving in the country. He particularly referred to the last Christmas celebrations as the first public "expressions of joy" in the country since eight years.
However, "the economic sanctions imposed unilaterally (not U.N.) by some countries cause suffering and hurt the Syrian population," he added. In fact, a recent analysis of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) notes, the sanctions have a "hugely detrimental impact on the most vulnerable members of Syria's population." Furthermore, "sanctions can never be 'smart'; new EU and US measures on Syria are only likely to strengthen the regime, not weaken it," states the report.
The Patriarch remarked that "the Christians want to stay in the Middle East," though they require a "strong goverment able to protect all its citizens and treat them equal without making any religious distinctions." A state that respects human rights and principals of citizenship is needed. Pointing to his home town of Qamishly, the Patriarch said "Assyrians, Armenians, Kurds and Arabs lived peacefully side-by-side in the past and visited same schools. He mentioned the establishment of new private University which just concluded its first semester of studies, accepting Christian and Muslim students.
H.B. Louis Rapahel I Cardinal Sako, in his speech, elaborated on the specific situation in Iraq, and touched to the chaos Iraqi people experienced since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, creating a situation of political and institutional vacuum, that enabled sectarianism, corruption and the multiplication of militias and armed groups to increase outside the control of state authority. "Many people have been killed; thausands of Muslims included, houses looted," he said.
Cardinal Sako confirmed Patriarch Aphrem that Christians want to leave in their ancestor homeland in peace and stability with their Moslem neighbours. For this to be implemented "we need separation of state and religions," means a secular regime, he added.
With respect to the Nineveh Plain, and the return of the Assyrin refugees, Patriarch Sako remarked that the Iraqi government did not do anything to help internally displaced people return to their homes, partly because of corrupt practices that prompt some to ask for money for the restoration of homes and churches destroyed during the conflict. "We have suffered enough", said the Chaldean Patriarch, stressing that Middle Eastern countries can only come out from the current crisis if the equality of rights for every citizen are recognized, if school programs are amended from any incitement to discrimination."
Cardinal Sako expressed hope that the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United Arab Emirates and the publication of the document on human Fraternity signed jointly with the Great Imam of al Azhar may contribute to the disappearance of the causes of religious fanaticism.
Düzen Tekkal described the "mission" of the Yezidis to survive a genocide caused by IS. Assyrians and Yezidis suffered; Assyrians had to pay Islamic tax (jizya) in some cases to survive. Yezidis were killed, enslaved, and their women raped. Just recently, many Yezidi women were freed from captivity in Deir-az-Zor, northeastern Syria, after IS was defeated there. The last five years have been a "trauma for the Yezidis," she concluded.