The 'tragic reality' of life for Christians in the Middle East

Pope Francis greets Patriarch Aphrem at the Vatican, June 2015: Eldhorajan92/Wikimedia Commons
Pope Francis greets Patriarch Aphrem at the Vatican, June 2015: Eldhorajan92/Wikimedia Commons

A London Jesuit who will be walking the ‘Camino Ignaciano’ (or Ignatian Way) in Spain later this month with parishioners from Farm Street Church has echoed the warning by a senior Orthodox Church leader that Christianity is in danger of disappearing across entire countries in the Middle East. Fr Dominic Robinson SJ will be one of the group helping to raise funds for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) projects in northern Iraq, and the Jesuit Refugee Service UK, as they undertake the 200km route taken by St Ignatius Loyola hundreds of years ago, from the Shrine of St Peter Claver in Verdù across Catalunya to the Abbey of Montserrat and Manresa.

Speaking to ACN’s John Pontifex, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Ignatius Aphrem II, said that in addition to the 80% of Christians who have left Iraq since 2003, Christianity is also at risk of disappearing in Syria and Lebanon. The Christian population has fallen dramatically in Turkey as well - from 3.5m to 150,000 in the last century – and the Patriarch has expressed the fear that this decline could be repeated in other parts of the region.

“Patriarch Aphrem's comments headline the tragic reality of life for Christians and other religious minorities in the region,” says Fr Robinson. “This is why Aid to the Church in Need are making the proposed visit to Erbil in northern Iraq next week, to offer support and give practical help to those forced to flee their homes by Daesh.  In addition to raising prayers and awareness, we hope that, through the Farm Street Camino, we can raise funds to help those displaced from Mosul and other towns taken over by Islamic extremists to stay in their own country, practise their faith and live their lives with some degree of dignity.”The Church of St Ahudemmeh, known as the Green Church, in Tikrit, Iraq, was one of the oldest Syriac Christian churches in the world until it was destroyed by Daesh in September 2014

Displacement and poverty

Patriarch Aphrem’s Church numbers five million worldwide and he has warned against those who reject Western values and want Sharia law widely implemented, saying that leaders in Europe leaders should be more active in stopping radicalised Muslims entering their countries.

"There should be a way of screening those who come to Europe so that they do not embrace extremist ideology,” he said. “I do not know how this should happen but it is necessary and should be done without infringing the rights of those who are peace-loving and law-abiding." The Patriarch added that there are also those from Europe who go to Syria and elsewhere to wage jihad and who then come back from their countries. “Europe has to be prepared for that," he told ACN.

Over recent years, half of the Christians in Syria have either been displaced or have fled abroad, a situation which is being mirrored in Lebanon where there is terrible poverty.

“It's a massive job to help ensure our Christian sisters and brothers and other religious groups are not completely driven out of the region,” says Fr Robinson, “so it requires a massively generous response.” 

Find out more about the Farm Street Camino, and follow the link to support the walkers.