Amid the ongoing offensive by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which recently caused the destruction of the Armenian church and genocide memorial in Deir Zor, Syria – an incident condemned by the World Council of Churches (WCC) – staff members of the council reflect on what such incidents may mean for Christians and other faith communities in the region.
The Armenian church attacked by the ISIS on 21 September was built in the late 1980s to house a memorial and a museum containing remains of the victims of the Armenian genocide. The memorial was visited by Armenians each year to commemorate the genocide.
WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit condemned the ISIS attack on the Armenian church in his letter addressed to the heads of Armenian member churches, including, Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of all Armenians, Armenian Apostolic Church Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, and Aram I, Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Holy See of Cilicia.
“We understand that the destruction in late September of this church building, museum and compound took place not only in the year leading to commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide but also on the 23rd anniversary of Armenian independence. With you, we are convinced that perpetrators of this premeditated crime will never succeed in erasing from the minds of Armenians and the world the memory and meaning of the desert of Deir Zor,” Tveit said.
“The attack on the church is a difficult incident due to the awful stories of suffering faced by the Armenians linked to Deir Zor,” says Dr Clare Amos, who works as the WCC's programme executive for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. Amos was referring to thousands of refugees who as part of the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s were taken on forced marches in the Syrian desert towards Deir Zor.
“Not just in the minds of Armenians but in the minds of other Christians too, Deir Zor symbolizes the history of the Armenian genocide. When such an attack happens to a place which has historical and political significance, one cannot avoid thinking how this may deliberately be meant to send a certain signal to the Armenians,” Amos says.
Yet such an incident cannot be seen in isolation from the larger reality of war, says Michel Nseir, WCC’s programme executive for special focus on the Middle East. Nseir says the attack on the Armenian church is among several attacks on buildings and monuments in Syria that are of historical and religious significance to people of faiths, including Christians.
Communities and religious extremism
Nseir says churches and Christians in Syria and Iraq have always considered themselves an integral part of the social fabric of their countries. He says Christians have expressed their suffering as part of the suffering of the entire population affected by military violence and religious extremism.
To put an end to religious extremism, Nseir says, a solution must be inclusive and encompassing enough to solve the crisis for Christians, as well as for everyone else. “Peace and justice are desired for all in the Middle East. When this vision is accomplished, Christians as well as other religious groups will be able to live with dignity and freedom in their homelands,” he said.
Nseir says this vision of the Middle Eastern churches has always been affirmed by the WCC. “Churches are calling for peace and justice for all and are working for reconciliation and healing.” He said that “churches are facilitating dialogue, coordinating humanitarian and relief efforts amidst the conflict and relieving the pain of those suffering and affected by the war.”
As part of the WCC’s efforts to accompany its member churches in the region, WCC staff members visited the Kurdistan region of Iraq in August. The visitors, who brought back testimonies from Christian communities and displaced persons, also highlighted the human rights situation in the region at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.
Speaking on “signs of hope” in the region, Amos recalls days from the “Arab Spring.” She said it was a period when there was talk about common citizenship in the Middle East for Christians and Muslims. “I think it’s still a vision to hold on to. Yet in such a situation where the sheer survival of Christian presence in Iraq and Syria is a grave concern, we know that the journey to accomplish such a vision is still a long one,” she said.
Nseir notes that several countries in the Middle East have been ruled by totalitarian regimes, military dictatorships or dynastic rulers. “A transformation that brings a positive change will take time,” he says. “My hope lies with young people. When they choose to stay in their countries and work for transformation, the vision for peace and justice becomes possible,” he concluded.
WCC calls for increased humanitarian response and responsibility to protect populations in Northern Iraq (WCC news release of 04 September 2014)