The Historic Visit of Five Patriarchs to North Iraq

Source: Assyrian International News Agency

20140826155634On Wednesday, August 20 five Patriarchs from the Middle East visited Arbel in north Iraq to show support for the beleaguered Assyrian Christian community (AINA 2014-08-21) and to call attention to the cultural genocide that is being committed against it by the Islamic State (ISIS). On August 7 ISIS moved into the north of Mosul and caused 200,000 Assyrians to flee in fear from dozens of villages in the Nineveh Plain as well as from Baghdede, Bartella and Karamles. Assyrians fled north to Dohuk and east to Ankawa, just north of Arbel.

The Patriarchs were Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros AlRai, Patriarch Ignatius Ephrem II Karim of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Chaldean Patriarch Louis Rafael Sako, Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius III Lahham and Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan.

Three of the five Patriarchs that visited North Iraq are Assyrians, Patriarch Karim, Patriarch Sako and Patriarch Younan. The Patriarch of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, his Holiness Dinkha IV, could not travel to North Iraq because of severe illness.

After visiting with refugees and conducting prayers, including reciting together the Lord’s Prayer in Syriac (Aramaic), the language of Jesus Christ, the Patriarchs held a press conference.

Patriarch Karim said “the Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian people that have been present in these lands for thousands of years before Christ, even the main people that constitute these societies, are being exterminated and expelled. Soon we might not see Syriac, Chaldean or Assyrian people in the region, along with other existing constituents.” He also said that Mosul and the towns and villages of the Nineveh plain must be liberated with the aid of foreign powers and Assyrians should be assisted in returning to their homes. He also called for an international protection force for the Assyrians and an autonomous region, the Nineveh Plain, to be administered by Assyrians and protected by an Assyrian force.


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Patriarch Sako said “Today what is required for us is that wherever we are we must have one voice, one stand, one feeling. Today we are required to overcome the ethnic and religious differences. In the end we are one church. As much as we are one church, we will be a stronger church, and we will have a future.”


Patriarch Younan said “We must raise our voice loudly and tell the whole world that it is not permissible for the civilized world in the 21st century to accept the extermination of a human group, irrespective of what religion, race or color it belongs to.”

Patriarch AlRai said the Patriarchs made their visits to give moral and spiritual support to the Assyrian Christians, to meet with government officials on the refugee crisis and to alert the international community on the Christian genocide occurring in north Iraq.

20140826155900The unfolding tragedy of the Assyrians in Iraq has galvanized the Assyrian community worldwide, and brought down denominational walls that have existed for centuries. The Assyrians have three large churches: the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, The Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Church of Babylon. Over the course of centuries members of these churches came to identify themselves by their denomination (“Chaldean”, “Syriac”), and this was encouraged and institutionalized by Muslim authorities for centuries to divide the population. But the Assyrian identity was never lost and Assyrians have always known their ethnic identity, and have a written and oral history that goes back almost seven millennia.

The Syriac/Aramaic speaking members of these churches are ethnically Assyrian (these churches have non-Assyrian members as well).

These denominational walls have been crumbling for the last 100 years, and most Assyrians no longer use their denomination as their ethnic identity. Assyrians are the indigenous people of North Mesopotamia. Education, knowledge and awareness of their vast history, 6764 years, have brought a national awakening and a keen desire and urgency for the preservation of the Assyrian culture, language and heritage, which is threatened by global assimilation.

Thus when Patriarch Karim says “our people, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Assyrians” it sends a powerful message of hope and unity to Assyrians, the majority of whom live — for the first time in their history — in the West, having been driven out of their homelands by continual treatment as second class citizens in Muslim societies and unending genocides. The Turkish genocide of Assyrians in World War One claimed the lives of 750,000 Assyrians (75%).

In an interview on Al Mayadeen television, Patriarch Karim said:

We were until a few weeks ago facing a bitter reality, Syriacs, Chaldeans and Assyrians. There was a division, a big division between our political parties and our organizations that work on the political level within these communities but this crisis has united us, just as we are sitting here together [With Patriarch Younan and Patriarch Sako], and we will continue to meet and work together. Our political parties also reached the conclusion that they cannot help their people if they work separately.Yesterday [August 22] there was a meeting for these political parties and organizations here in Ankawa and God willing this cooperation will continue, and any plan to return these people to their homes and protect them cannot be achieved or succeed if the activists, political or social, do not unite. There will be an alliance of Syriacs, Chaldeans and Assyrians.

Samuel Ozdemir, an Assyrian monk in Brussels, was so moved by the crisis in Iraq, he delivered an impassioned message to Assyrians around the world, saying that Assyrians should put aside denominational divisions, should procreate, should work across denominations to insure they remain in their ancestral lands, and should be armed to protect themselves and should have their own autonomous region.

Assyrian political organizations have been calling for an Assyrian autonomous region for at least 10 years, and often in the past they cited this kind of the threat (ISIS) to the Assyrian populations as justification. On January 21 the Iraq Council of Ministers approved a plan to establish three new provinces in Iraq (AINA 2014-01-22), one of which would be in north Iraq, in the Nineveh Plain bordering the Kurdish areas. The Nineveh Plain had the largest population of Assyrians until August 7, when ISIS drove nearly all of them out.

Calls to arm the Assyrians in Iraq have come from many circles, including the Vatican (AINA 2014-08-15).

Here are the statements made by the Patriarchs at the press conference.


Patriarch Karim

I would like to start first by thanking Beshara AlRai and gregarious Laham, the rest of us have our flock here, but their presence really made us feel as one, and visited the united church.The Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian people that have been present in these lands for thousands of years before Christ, even the main people that constitute these societies, are being exterminated and expelled. Soon we might not see Syriac, Chaldean or Assyrian people in the region, along with other existing constituents.

We cannot withstand anymore the tragedies we witnessed today. As spiritual fathers when we see our children without a place to sleep in, how can we sleep ourselves? Truly all of us had tears in our eyes when we this suffering. We were deeply touched because we could not give them anything, except we asked them to keep their hopes up as we are the sons of the Church, of hope and of the Resurrection.

What is being requested, to summarize, is in my opinion:

  1. Assistance in liberating Mosul and the towns and villages of the Nineveh plain. This is something that the major countries can do.
  2. Assist in returning the people to their homes and lands as fast as possible
  3. Provide international protection for these people, because today we heard from the people and even the Kurdistan regional government that people no longer have confidence in the peshmerga [Kurdish forces] or others. Therefore, there must be international protection provided for these people so they can remains in their lands and in their homes.
  4. We ask and demand that our people be enabled to protect themselves and to take care of their own affairs in an area of their own, with agreement with the Kurdistan regional government or other arrangements that could be undertaken. Thank you.


Patriach Sako

This is a historical visit for us, a show of solidarity. It made us feel we are one and we are not forgotten, we are not cut off from each other. The visit and their presence itself is a message.Our eastern churches are in the middle of a tragedy that has affected the Christians and Yazidis and others. The visit boosted our confidence and increased our hope for the future.

Together we visited the president and PM of Kurdistan and this united message was for us strength.

Today what is required for us is that wherever we are we must have one voice, one stand, one feeling. Today we are required to overcome the ethnic and religious differences. In the end we are one church. As much as we are one church, we will be a stronger church, and we will have a future.

A lot of our people have emigrated and we have become small churches, but together we will become one church, a church of Christ, a church ingrained and rooted in this East.

As the Pope said our churches are the message.


Patriarch Younan

As my brothers Sako and Bshara stated, The subject is the tragedy of our people. I would like to add this point.Today we cannot only speak about the tragedy and genocide for a Christian constituent or of Yazidi or Shabak constituents. We must raise our voice loudly and tell the whole world that it is not permissible for the civilized world in the 21st century to accept the extermination of a human group, irrespective of what religion, race or color it belongs to.

We know that this genocide or attempted genocide of our people was at the hands of a takfiri group that does not accept the ‘other.’

The very dangerous issue about this is that this group developed and was nurtured in communities and with support from countries known in the region that are founded on Wahabism in the Islamic religion and they are trying to evade and not accept their responsibility because they say that Al-Qaeda is their enemy.

Today we spiritual shepherds, we want to join all those who defend human rights and raise our voices to all the international powers, as the Patriarchs said. We would like to remind the west, especially the US, Britain and France, that these Takfiri groups did not become strong if it were not for their — at best — hidden support. Today they are retreating and trying to hide the issue under the rug.

This is our problem, because we today are facing two choices: to be or not to be. This is not because we are Christians or belong to a specific sect, but rather because we are human. human. Thank you.


Patriarch AlRai

We the patriarchs, all the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic, met on August 7 where we decided to make this visit for 3 reasons:

  1. Declare our spiritual, moral, humanitarian and material solidarity with the Christians that have been displaced and kicked out of their lands, and we also wanted to meet with the Yezidis and we accomplished that.So we can tell them first of all that we are with you, we stand with you, your pain is our pain your tragedy is our tragedy. Don’t be afraid we are all together, we have a role we will play, you as Christians today are carrying the cross we have to carry it by its worth until the day of resurrection.And we want to tell you do not think of emigrating, now is the time to stay in your lands and protect your culture and history and roots, you are not in a temporary location, you as Christians are 2,000 years old and the roots of the Christian body goes back to our father Abraham.You have a big role to play, we are with you and besides you, in your problems, and we will not be watching you, with all our churches that are present with all the Patriarchs, Bishops, and priests.
  2. Second goal was that we meet with the government officials, our meetings were very nice and very important we spoke on all issues of our brothers the Christians; we received assurances from the president of KRG prime minister we thank them from all our heart because they opened their doors and welcomed everyone.
  3. To make our voice heard by international community from this land to take responsibility, because it is not possible that in the 21st century for a terrorist organization such as ISIS, or as it is called the Islamic State, or others like, it is not possible for them to dominate peoples who are living peacefully at home, to expel them from their homes, to confiscate their properties and to kill and abuse them, while the international community stands idle and watches. This is something we totally reject. We ask that it is not permissible for terrorists organizations to take control of peaceful citizens. Hence, those need protection so they can live in dignity. We demand that they return to their land in dignity, to their properties — the fruit of their lifework.

(Addressing Sako) As you said, we are of course one church, with of course one destiny, at the humanitarian and spiritual levels, and we wanted to confirm we are all one voice, one body, your wounds are our wounds — all of us.

We are hopeful that there is good will in the world.

We the patriarchs will move at all levels according to the August 7th statement.


Patriarch Lahham

St. Paul says cry with those who are crying and we came here just like St Paul to be with you, and we cried with you. I want to say we love you all and God loves you all. I call you to pray, we saw women and children praying with us. This tragedy needs prayers and fasting,I spoke to the Patriarchs, and upon my return to Syria, I will have all our churches in prayer and fasting on a daily basis starting in September for the safety and security of our people and our countries, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Ghaza, Egypt .

And today we the Patriarchs are gathered here and this is a beautiful thing. Between June, July and August we met four times to strategize and define a platform not just for the Christians and Yazidis, but a platform for humanity, because nowadays human dignity is trampled upon. We will work for the dignity of every person, so a new kind of person will be born in the Arab world.

Because if we really love each other in the Arab world, we need today a new birth.

And we say to them in the word of Christ who said to his apostles, people will know you are my students if you love one another. If we love each other, as Arabs, as Muslims, as Christians, as Shiites, as Sunnis, we would have built a world based on love.

Also we will have various meetings together, and alone, we will go to the Vatican, and probably visit other countries such as the US, and others, and tell them that we must act, and this is the role of Christians today, and not fear for ourselves but we must fear for our testimony.

Our presence without our testimony and our role and our message will not suffice. I hope we will work for our presence, our role, our message.

Muslims and Christians must understand to build a better world in our countries. Secondly, it is possible to stay together, Muslims and Christians, to build a better world in our countries. Thirdly, we want to stay together to build a better world, which is our world that God loves.

And I say to my sons, my brothers, my loved ones, thank you Mar Ephrem and Mar Sako and Mar Younan, you are of the shepherds of this land.

We say to our sons and daughters in Iraq, you are on the path of the Cross and it is extremely cruel, but don’t forget your name and label in history. You are the children of the Resurrection.

And we say from this platform: Iraq you have a new resurrection, the Arab world you have a new resurrection.

A partial video of the press conference is shown below.


Middle East Patriarchs Reaction:


A meeting was held in August 2014 at the Maronite Catholic patriarchate at Bkerke, north of Beirut, Catholic and Orthodox patriarchs convened for a special summit to address the crisis in Iraq and Syria. Later joined by the United Nations’ special coordinator in Lebanon and the ambassadors of the five permanent member-countries of the U.N. Security Council, the patriarchs called for worldwide efforts to eradicate terrorist groups.

The summit, presided by Cardinal Bechara Rai, Maronite patriarch, and was attended by: Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II; Armenian Catholic Patriarch Nerses Bedros XIX Tarmouni; Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham; Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan; Catholicos Aram of Cilicia, patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church; Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako; a representative of the Greek Orthodox Church; and the head of the Evangelical Council, Rev. Salim Sahyouni.
“World cannot keep silent about the existence of the so-called ISIS”, patriarchs declare
“The very existence of Christians is at stake in several Arab countries – notably in Iraq, Syria and Egypt – where they have been exposed to heinous crimes, forcing them to flee,” the patriarchs said in a statement.

They highlighted the indifference of both Islamic authorities and the international community over attacks against Christians, who have been in the region for 2,000 years.

They elaborated: “The Christians of Iraq have been detained by ISIS and are being driven out of their houses. The sanctity of their churches have been violated and their houses have been bombed. They amounted to 120,000 and now 60,000 are present in Erbil (the capital city of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq).”
“What is painful is the absence of a stance by Islamic authorities, and the international community has not adopted a strict stance either,” the patriarchs said.

“We call for issuing a fatwa that forbids attacks against others,” they said.

“The international community cannot keep silent about the existence of the so-called ISIS,” the patriarchs said, referring to the Islamic State. “They should put an end to all extremist terrorist groups and criminalize aggression against Christians and their properties.”

The meeting was a follow-up to their first summit earlier this month, in addition to a trip by several of them to Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.

The prelates stressed the need for cutting off the sources of terrorism. They called upon the nations of the world to deprive extremist groups of resources by compelling countries financing them to stop their support.

Solutions, they say must include “dealing with the reasons that produced the miseries in the Middle East.” Harmony must be restored between the components of these countries, they said.

“The international community must act and eradicate” the Islamic State, the patriarchs said. “This is required from the United Nations and the U.N. Security Council.

“We must stop using extremists, terrorists and mercenaries and (stop) supporting, financing and arming them,” they said.


Pope Francis prays at St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, on 10 August 2014:


Pope Francis prays at St Peter’s Square, Vatican City, on 10 August. Photograph: Alessandro Di Meo/EPA

Pope Francis used unusually strong language to condemn the actions of Islamists in their continuing campaign against minorities in Iraq on Sunday and called for an end to violence in the name of God. A high-ranking special Vatican envoy is due to leave for northern Iraq on Monday.

In his traditional Sunday blessing, Francis said the news from the country had left him “in dismay and disbelief”. Without referring by name to theIslamic State (Isis), whose jihadists are largely responsible for the persecution, the pope deplored reports of “thousands of people, including many Christians, driven from their homes in a brutal manner; children dying of thirst and hunger in their flight; women kidnapped; people massacred; [and] violence of every kind.”

He added: “All this gravely offends God and humanity. Hatred is not to be carried in the name of God. War is not to be waged in the name of God.