Eastern Bishops Have Mixed Feelings About European Churches Hosting Refugees

The Chaldean Patriarch and two Syrian bishops say the initiative risks becoming an incentive for Christians to flee. The exodus and all its tragedies, is fuelled by the power strategies of western countries

“The Pope’s appeal to open Europe’s parishes to refugees who are turned away by government is an incentive to people to show mercy in the face of a tragic situation. This was the only humanly possible thing.But this will be a further incentive for our Christians to leave. Jacques Behnan Hindo, the Syro-Catholic archbishop of Hassaké-Nisibi, is used to speaking frankly. An attitude accentuated by the four years of war endured in the north-eastern region of Jazira – one of Syria’s most disputed areas. Last June, when Islamic State jihadists attacked Hassaké, taking over several of its neighbourhoods, they came very close to his episcopate. Now, it is his opinion, that the action taken by European churches to welcome refugees from Syria and other war zones, could produce unexpected side effects: “My people will immediately say to me: the Pope said parishes and convents are opening their doors to u there. So what are we waiting for? They will also think they are the first to be welcomed.”

The appeal Pope Francis launched at the Angelus last Sunday for every parish in Europe as well as all religious and monastic communities and sanctuaries to take in a family of refugees fleeing war and hunger, was immediately embraced by the media and many European ecclesial circles. But in the countries of the Middle East that have been rocked by jihadist attacks, the initiative is seen in a different light. There are various implications and little considered consequences in the river of positive reactions witnessed in the West.

Hindo is not the only one who has his doubts. In Tirana – where he was a guest at the Community of Sant’Egidio’s annual meeting – the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako said offering hospitality to refugees in Europe “is a partial solution”. Efforts need to be made to restore peace in Iraq and Syria, where those fleeing war “have their homes, their traditions, their language”. The Primate of the Chaldean Church added that “sentimentalism” “does not resolve the problem, it only complicates it”.

In the conflicts that have been bloodying Iraq for years, Louis Raphael I has often argued with western countries that have helped Christians fleeing upheaval in the Middle East by facilitating the process for obtaining residency permits.In the past, the Patriarch has released official communiqués, warning faithful about the ploys of individuals and organised groups, “particularly in the US”, who aim to enlarge the Iraqi diaspora in order to boost their electoral support to promote their policies. Many are aware of the Patriarch’s battle to bring back a number of Chaldean priests and religious who fled to North America without the consent of their bishops and superiors. In America, they have applied for asylum, presenting themselves as victims of Islamist persecution.

Speaking to Fides news agency from Aleppo yesterday, Chaldean bishop Antoine Audo, an experienced observer of Middle Eastern events – and of the power struggles that shape their dynamics – expressed mixed feelings about the Pope’s appeal to European parishes to take action.

According to the Jesuit bishop – who is also president of Caritas Syria – the initiatives “is an invitation to all Christians to take concrete evangelical actions to help those in emergency situations”. But “faced with wars that are tearing up the Middle East , it is our wish as Christians and as a Church to stay in our country and we are doing our utmost to keep hope alive”. “We are all worn out” by four years of war, Audo said, but at the same time, we do not feel like telling people: run, go, someone will take you in. We respect families with children who decide to leave. I would never say anything or pass unforgiving judgement on those who leave because they want to protect their children from suffering. But it is painful for us to see families go, and many of them are Christian. It is a sign that the war will never end or that in the end, those who plan to destroy the country will come out on top.”  The Chaldean bishop paints the picture of a long and fatal haemorrhage that is bleeding the country dry of its best resources: “Even in Aleppo I hear young people chatting among themselves, saying: ‘Let’s get a group together and leave. Let’s run away by ourselves, without telling our families … This means the only people who will stay behind are the elderly.”

Eastern bishops point out that the tragic experiences of Middle Eastern refugees are recounted without any mention to the regional and geopolitical responsibilities and connivances that triggered and fuelled the emergency. A removal mechanism which is now using thus far concealed images depicting the most disturbing of situations.

Just like other heads of Middle Eastern Churches, the Chaldean Patriarch has often stressed that the conflicts and terrorist operations in the region are part of a “plan for a new Middle East” divided by religious borders and split on the basis of ethnic and sectarian criteria. These dynamics are fostered by the military and intelligence operations carried out by Western circles. Yesterday too, Louis Raphael I pointed to the “faults” of the international community, which sells arms and “does not help these countries to find a path of peace and reconciliation, allowing this exodus to continue”.

Archbishop Hindo adopts a tough tone, confiding his suspicions to Vatican Insider: “Perhaps some European leaders are seeking to regain their virginity by welcoming in a thousand or so refugees for now. But  by now we are suspicious. I hope they are not preparing public opinion for a new military intervention. There are those who have been pursuing a massive military intervention in Syria for some time now, claiming that the Islamic State is the target, when really it is Assad’s army they want to strike.” From Aleppo, Audo also denounces the systematic concealment of the geopolitical and military actions that have caused the current chaos: “We are doing our utmost to defend peace, while the West claims it is acting in defence of human rights, using this argument to continue fuelling this heinous war. This is the terrible paradox in which we find ourselves. And we no longer understand what it is they actually want.”