By Grant S. White
The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have displaced millions of people, leading to suffering on a scale difficult to grasp. One of the effects of these conflicts has been the persecution of the native Christian populations of Iraq and Syria. These people, who have lived in their villages, towns, and cities for centuries, have been expelled, harassed, and murdered by forces intent on removing the Christian presence from Iraq and Syria, as well as that of any religious community that does not adhere to their interpretation and practice of Islam. According to the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC) nearly 11 million people in Syria have been displaced, 6.5 million of which are internally displaced.
Through the IOCC, Filantropia assists in helping displaced, suffering people in Syria. As Orthodox, we have a chance to help in Syria in ways impossible for many other agencies and groups. This is because of the widespread presence today – even in the midst of persecution and suffering – of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East, a church that has existed in this region since the first century. You can find Patriarch John X’s most recent statements on the crisis in Syria here. The fact sheet on the Syrian catastrophe put together by Mark Ohanian of the IOCC gives a succinct overview of the crisis and the IOCC’s response to it.
Other Christian voices in the Middle East have also spoken out against the slaughter and displacement of Christians in Syria and Iraq. One of the most prominent is that of Mar Louis Raphael I Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans. His pastoral letters, issued in September and November of this year, not only give voice to the suffering of Christians in Iraq and Syria, but also call for Muslims and the wider international community to act and speak forcefully against the religious extremism driving groups such as ISIS/ISIL. In addition, an interfaith consultation held in Vienna in November 2014 issued a joint declaration on 19 November 2014 entitled “United Against Violence in the Name of Religion.”
We all in the church need to be as well-informed as possible about the parts of the world in which our diaconal work is being done. This isn’t an easy task at any time, let alone now when the amount of information we are able to access is overwhelming and we may not have trustworthy guides to finding the most reliable information. With regard to the Middle East, it is impossible here to summarize the recent history of this region and the dynamics behind the current suffering there. Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to identify the most reliable, non-partisan sources of information on this subject. Much material can be found online, but much of it is written from a partisan perspective. Although total objectivity is impossible, some sources are more consciously non-partisan than others. One scholar whose work I would recommend is William R. Polk, who has written extensively on the Middle East for more than fifty years. His website contains a number of articles on the Middle East, of which two written in 2013 I think are particularly helpful in understanding the history of Syria. The first provides a geographical and historical introduction to Syria. The second discusses the roots and main points of the ideology driving ISIS/ISIL. Both of these essays are not light reading, and to the best of my knowledge they have not been translated into Finnish. However, they are excellent summaries of the historical, political, geographical, and ideological forces at work in Syria today.
To learn more about the eastern Christian churches of the Middle East, I recommend the online edition of Fr. Ronald Roberson’s The Eastern Churches – A Brief Survey (7th edition, 2010) found on the CNEWA site. The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) has a September 2014 report on Syria and a November 2014 update on Iraq. See as well the home page of the Middle East Council of Churches, which includes the Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical churches of the region. The ACT Alliance, a coalition of more than 140 churches and church-related organizations, maintains a page on Syria that is updated with news and reports.
Three non-partisan agencies are also good sources of current information on the Syrian crisis. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is a widely-respected source of information about the numbers of people injured and killed daily in Syria. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) maintains a page on Syria, as does OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.