Mideast Catholic patriarchs encourage Christmas hope, joy amid suffering

BEIRUT (CNS) — Catholic patriarchs from the Middle East encouraged their troubled people to find inner peace at Christmas and urged the world to remember them.

A displaced Iraqi women bakes bread on a traditional oven at a camp in Baghdad. (CNS photo | Ahmed Jalil, EPA)

“In Iraq, we will celebrate the birth of Christ who comes into our hearts in silence and tears,” said Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako of Baghdad. However, he said, “We remain sustained by (an) inner peace that perpetuates the joy of faith and hope that we will, despite the trials, work toward a fairer country and a better future.”

“This year, Iraqi Christians will celebrate Christmas in deplorable conditions,” he said, citing “the deteriorating situation at all levels in our country” and “what they experienced as Christians, victims of segregation and exclusion.”

The Islamic State still occupies Mosul and the cities of the Ninevah Plain, the patriarch said.

“No one, except those who have planned this religious purification, could have imagined such a catastrophe,” Patriarch Sako said, noting that, since the summer of 2014, many Christians have been forced to live in camps, in which their needs are being provided for only by the church or civil society.

Homes of Christians in Baghdad are still at risk of being seized by extremist Muslim militias, he said, adding that images of Mary were recently posted throughout the city, with a message inviting Christian women “to imitate the Blessed Virgin and to veil themselves.”

Patriarch Sako said Christians are victims of discrimination.

“It is as if the fundamental rights and freedoms did not pertain to us,” he said. “All this deprives us of the joy of the holiday.”

“On this occasion (Christmas) we want to repeat quite frankly: We do not give in to injustice. On the contrary, we will remain committed to our land, our patriotism, and we will continue to live our love for our fellow citizens, simply because they are our brothers,” Patriarch Sako said. “We want peace for Iraq.”

Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, based in Beirut, said that, for Christmas, “our present world urgently needs any glimmer of hope” for people who are “persecuted, displaced and uprooted coercively from the land of their fathers and grandfathers.”

“We are the shepherds of this persecuted people, we stand today in front of a historic crossroad in the journey of our people,” he said. Displaced people forced to migrate become, like Jesus, homeless, he added.

Patriarch Younan also appealed to the international community “to stop fueling the internal fighting in Syria.”

Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham — who, like Patriarch Younan, was born in Syria — focused on the joy of the Gospel in his Christmas message.

“Today more than ever, the world needs … joy,” Patriarch Laham wrote from his residence in Raboueh, Lebanon.

“The Arab world — our churches, communities, patriarchs, archbishops, priests, deacons, monks, nuns, faithful sons and daughters of our parishes, fellow-citizens and the whole world — all need this joy heralded by the Christmas angel, ‘I bring you glad tidings of great joy!'”

Patriarch Laham said there was “no sign on the horizon of any sign of joy and relief, no end to this dark tunnel, this bloody Way of the Cross which our Middle East, especially Syria, has been treading for the last five years.”

“God loves you! Repeat over and over again, ‘God loves me!'” Patriarch Laham told the faithful, adding, “And allow happiness to enter into your heart.”

“May the New Year 2016 be a year of peace for Syria, the whole region and the world,” he said.