Vienna (AINA) -- A delegation of three Patriarchs of Churches of Syriac tradition from Syria and Iraq visited the Austrian Federal Cancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday, December 11. Cardinal Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako from Baghdad, (Chaldean Church of Babylon), Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II Karim from Damascus (Syriac Orthodox Church). and Patriarch Ignatius Yousef III Younan from Beirut (Syriac Catholic Church) are in Europe to lobby for support for Christians of the Middle East.
Prior meeting with the Austrian Cancellor, the Patriarchs met with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn in a Christmas reception at the Archbishop's Palace. At a press conference following the meeting with Cardinal Schönborn, the Patriarchs emphasized that the Archbishop of Vienna, with his many visits to the region, has shown great solidarity with the Christians in the region and is "very familiar with the situation of Christians in the Middle East."
According to Patriarch Sako, the situation in Iraq has recently been marked by some improvements. The deciding factor is the demonstrated openness of the state leadership, which "strives for reforms."
But the biggest challenges are the ideology of extremism -- based on political Islam - and the migration of Christians from the country. Political Islam is "a risk for all," said Patriarch Sako, adding that "Westtern countries should put pressure on governments to push back this extremism, and I believe that Muslims in Western countries could be helpful in this."
The Patriarch argued that the migration of Christians from the homeland is seen as a negative development by moderate Muslims as well. Therefore, the return of people to their towns and villages and the reconstruction projects are regarded as highly important.
Echoing Patriarch Sako's statements, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II Karim said "we are afraid that we will not be [existing] in our country in a few decades...the West has no interest in our efforts as Christians to live on." Instead, Christians are "criticized for supporting this or that regime," continued the Patriarch, ignoring that Christians are only fighting for their survival. Explaining why Christians are against a regime change in Syria Patriarch Aphrem said: "The current government is a secular government for us Christians, a secular government is the best option, and our biggest fear is that a change will bring a religious government to power."
Patriarch Younan said he had argued in the West against this naivety back in May 2011, saying that "democracy cannot be simply exported to countries that have been ruled for centries by one-person and where a separation between religion and state never existed."
Patriarch Aphrem emphasized the need to materially help Churches in Syria. As an example and in order to keep young people in the country he pointed to a new Christian university with five faculties that was opened in October. This university is also open to Muslim students. But "financial means are also required for employment programs and for the reconstruction of destroyed churches and buildings," concluded the Patriarch.
As an immediate follow-up action, the Austrian Federal Government, in cooperation with the Austrian Bishops' Conference, has decided on Wednesday December 12, to support concrete projects in crisis areas and former crisis areas with an amount of 1,000,000 Euros. The funds will be provided from the current budget of the Federal Chancellery.
Gudrun Kugler, an MP of the Austrian People's Party who was present at the meeting, commented that "the local churches know best where reconstruction aid, restoration of villages and church infrastructure is necessary. Through our support, the churches can advance initiatives for democracy-building and inter-religious links. This is particularly evident in the area of Christian education, which is open to all faiths. By directly supporting the affected Christian communities, Christians will be able to stay or return to the Middle East. Thus, the extinction of Christianity in its region of origin can be prevented. For this the Austrian Federal Government, above all the Federal Chancellor, is to be thanked very much!"