- Your Eminence, what are the reasons for the decreased number of Christians in the Middle East?
The reasons are different and date back centuries. The first significant reduction of Eastern Christians dates back to the seventh century, when the conquerors tried to impose Islam on them, solely and exclusively, considering it the absolute of Jewish and Christian vision. This entailed discrimination and oppression of Christians, both directly and indirectly, through open persecution, as well as a tax on unbelievers. Both of these persecutions resulted in mass conversions to Islam. In fact, the survival of Christians depended primarily on the personality of the caliphs, who were considered Amir al-Mu'minin, that is "commanders of the faithful", who encapsulated both religious and political power.
- Unfortunately, such persecution continues to this day, doesn't it? How does the persecution of Christians manifest itself today?
Over the past two decades, their number has plunged, primarily due to so-called Islamic radicalism, which is politically linked to the ideology of Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood (an organization banned in the Russian Federation). These theocratic ideologies provided a basis for the creation of terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL (organizations banned in the Russian Federation) striving to impose a bloody and militant Jihad as a way to spread Islam. Apart from the state of emergency for our security resulting from their actions, there are difficult economic conditions and globalization that contribute to the emigration of Christians, as well as secondary causes. What the West does not often understand is that even if the number of these groups decreases, their ideology will linger on, and this entails a deep and constant worry for us Christians. We see our future as a life within a community that does not accept the separation of Islam from the state and that, by imposing a system based on this ideology, is prepared to discriminate non-Muslim citizens.
- How do you assess the position of the West in relation to Christians of the East?
Because of Western administrations' political opportunism, Christians in the Middle East have been abandoned, or rather betrayed by the West, which has forgotten that we are the inheritors of a thousand-year-old culture and the first preachers of the Christian faith. Struggling for survival, our communities are of no interest to Western politicians, because we are numerical minorities, often lacking financial resources and providing no terrorist threat to the civilized world. Christians wonder why we are so ignored and neglected by countries that are considered defenders of civil rights and are so actively involved in protecting the rights of various minorities. And it is those countries that forget about the most vulnerable Christian minorities in the Middle East, who risk being expelled from their historical homeland altogether.
- How do you assess the position of the West in relation to terrorism the region faces?
The Western stance on Islamic terrorism is very ambiguous. This ambiguity may partly result from "politically correct" behavior used by politicians, the media and nonprofit institutions. On the one hand, Western politicians lack courage to say that over 90% of world terrorism is a product of radical Islam! On the other hand, they keep arguing about the European continent's deterioration, implying that terrorism-induced migration waves from the Middle East to Europe may eventually prove useful.
- Is that why you think Western military actions in the region under the pretext of fighting terrorism are ineffective?
It is obvious that governments of Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East are far from the so-called "Western democracy". But this does not justify chaos-mongering in countries that welcome coexistence with religion in the citizens' public and private life. If the West wants to help the region's governments, let it do so by facilitating their gradual transition to a system of civilian control free from religion-based discrimination. It has to be admitted in fairness that no country with a predominantly Muslim majority has ever held political elections free of religious affiliation.
- How can the West change its attitude towards the Middle East, protect religious minorities more effectively, and promote inter-religious coexistence?
Avoiding any kind of paternalism, the West should insist on genuine respect for the charter of civil rights in all the countries of the Middle East. Until the present time, the so-called protection of human rights has been used to justify intervention in countries with sizeable profits from oil businesses, for instance, by advertising the geopolitical prospects of oil-rich countries the West is interested in teaming up with. Even when they certainly fail to protect the rights of religious minorities. What is needed is a coordinated and unified effort by countries of the European Union.
- Many governments of the Middle East claim that mass immigration to Europe is a problem for their countries since it deprives them of their own youth. Do you have a similar assessment?
Of course, emigration, mostly of young people, may drain developing countries of blood. It would be appreciated if other ways are found to help countries with no economic resources. Witnessed migration waves are causing unutterable tragedies: loss of roots, expulsion from native soil, loss of culture, and socio-religious alienation are among the most harmful consequences of migration for both the countries of origin and the host countries.
- They often say "let's help these people at their place". What do you think should be done to develop assistance measures in the countries you work that would give young people an opportunity not to leave?
In this case, there is also a need for a unified EU approach to implement sustainable development projects in needy countries, projects to be constantly carefully controlled and monitored in order to create a sustainable economy in these countries. Christians must remain in the historical land of their ancestors, and for this they need the solidarity of their European brothers and sisters. My advice to the European Union is as follows: first of all, you need to assuredly identify countries providing a source of emigration, and then to draw a line between real refugees forced to escape violence and emigrants for economic reasons.
- How did Western sanctions affect Syrian youth and Christians in Syria?
The so-called "embargo" or economic sanctions have terrible consequences for millions of civilians. These are geopolitical manipulations of the West, which wants to keep putting pressure on Syria, a country that has been moving towards one of the most secular government systems in the region. Syrian youth, who are generally open to secular studies and work, run a serious risk of not being able to withstand such an "embargo" that has been lasting for many years. The great challenge for us is how to build up their hopes for the future during this period of great confusion and vacillation.
- How do you assess the Catholic Church's attitude to migration?
This is certainly an issue of great concern to the Church throughout Europe. Christians in the Middle East are deeply grateful to their Western colleagues who have helped them, professing a unique spiritual and financial solidarity in the recent years of calamity. To better help us resist the historical challenges we face, we ask our European fellow creatures for help to persuade our young people, many of whom are disoriented, to remain firm in their faith and hope and not to forget their roots. We must always remember the words of encouragement from the Lord: "Fear not, little flock...!"