About 450 young Catholic adults from the Middle East gathered in Lebanon July 17-22 to celebrate their faith at the inaugural Syriac Youth International Convention. After what many of them have been through in recent years, just to live out their faith, the gathering was a testament to their love for Christ.
The Syriac Catholic Church is one of 23 Eastern Catholic churches in the world. While self-governed (their spiritual leader is the Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius Joseph III Younan), Syriac Catholics have been in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church since 1781.
According to a Catholic News Service report, Syriac Catholics from 15 countries, age 18 to 35, attended the convention. It consisted of prayer events, educational workshops and presentations on their Syriac history.
Listening to the stories of young Syriac Catholics who traveled long distances to attend the event, one better understands and appreciates how faith in God plays an integral role in their lives. This is especially true for Catholics from Syria, where an estimated 400,000 citizens have been killed since a civil war broke out in 2011. More than 5.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Another 6 million are internally displaced.
“We want all the world to know that we Christians are still in Aleppo,” said Fawzy Basily, 26, one of 20 young adults from Syria who attended the convention. “We are strong in faith despite all we went through — and we will continue on,” he said.
Other young Syriac Catholics were forced to flee their countries, including Elias Atmaja, 20. He and 22 other young adults from Aleppo, now living in Belgium, traveled to Lebanon for the gathering.
“Here at the convention, we have an opportunity to share and renew our faith and feel that the church is alive,” said Atmaja, an aeronautical engineering student. While Belgium provides safety, it lacks a religious presence, he said.
The persecution and hardships faced by these young Syriac Catholics, especially in Syria, should lead us to consider a few questions: Will these refugees ever be able to return home? Are they still welcome as refugees around the world? Here in the United States, are we willing to welcome these brothers and sisters in faith as refugees?
The U.S. refugee admissions cap for fiscal year 2018 was set at 45,000, down from 110,000 in fiscal year 2017 (which was set by President Obama but later reduced by President Trump’s executive order). It is the lowest cap since Congress established the present refugee program in 1980.
According to a May 3, 2018, Pew Research Center report, Muslims accounted for the largest drop in refugees admitted to the U.S. from Oct. 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018. Muslim refugees dropped from 22,900 in fiscal 2017 to 1,800 in the first half of fiscal 2018.
Christian refugees have fared better (6,700 entered the U.S. from Oct. 2017 to March 2018), but as refugee admissions continue to drop due to policies enacted by the Trump administration, it’s reasonable to assume Christian refugees such as Syriac Catholics will not be welcomed here. Why? Because they come from Middle East countries.
As Christians, we should be concerned for all refugees, not just our own Catholic brothers and sisters. But if understanding the trials of Syriac Catholics helps us to open our hearts to others, than that is a good first step.
In the words of Pope Francis, “A person’s dignity does not depend on them being a citizen, a migrant, or a refugee. Saving the life of someone fleeing war and poverty is an act of humanity.”