BEIRUT — From the Patriarchate of Beirut, Lebanon, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan made a historic pastoral visit to Turkey, particularly to regions that were the cradle of Syriac Christianity.
As always, he urged the faithful to continue to bear witness to their faith in the land of their fathers and ancestors, despite the difficulties.
“I thank the Lord Jesus Christ for gratifying me to make this sixth 8-day pastoral visit to Turkey,” Patriarch Younan told the Trip Record from October 12-19. Stops included Istanbul; Tuesday; Tower Abdin; Ephesus and Ankara, where the Patriarch met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
From Istanbul, the patriarch was accompanied by a group of 150 faithful, including the apostolic nuncio, bishops and priests. The delegation went to Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey, which forms, with its villages, the Anatolian cradle of the Syriac Church of Antioch.
“I rededicated there the church of our monastery of Saint Ephrem, which was confiscated in the last 100 years and turned into a stable for the soldiers,” Patriarch Younan told the Register.
“Next, we had the joy of ordaining a new priest who will be a missionary assistant for our scattered Syriac Catholic communities,” the Patriarch said.
Born in Hassaké, Syria, Patriarch Younan’s parents were genocide survivors when, as small children, they fled southeast Turkey with their mothers to Syria in 1918. His family roots are from Qal’ at Mara, near Mardin.
“Such a visit to the ancestral land, from where our Christians were uprooted in the last century, is always full of emotions, questions and calls to strengthen our faith and our hope in our Lord, who told us to to remain strong and to fear nothing, because He will always remain with his Church”, underlined the patriarch.
For three days, the Patriarch led the pastoral visit to Marin and Tur Abdin, the land of Syriac ancestors.
“Mardin was until the First World War a flourishing city, where thousands of Christian families lived and worked mainly in the free craft sector. It is very sad to see our churches and monasteries emptying out, when they were once well populated, despite all the discrimination,” Patriarch Younan said.
For the rededication of the church of the Syriac Catholic Monastery of Saint Ephrem, large crowds of believers attended, extending to the courtyards of the monastery and the church.
The restored church, which dates from 1884, is the fruit of “diligent monks who built it and prayed in it, and always watched Jesus crucified”, the patriarch told worshippers.
In his homily, the patriarch referred to the verse “Look at him and trust in him” inscribed in Syriac on the cross erected behind the altar, telling the faithful “our eyes are always on Jesus crucified, and in him we place all our hope.”
In Mardin, the Patriarch also celebrated the Divine Liturgy at the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary and ordained a priest.
“This priestly ordination in our cathedral church in Mardin was very significant, as it is the first for more than 110 years. It was certainly a celebration full of joy, emotions and tears,” Patriarch Younan said.
“The new priest, Jimmy, a Turkish national and father of two children, will help our Patriarchal Vicar of Turkey in Istanbul, and will serve as a missionary in Mardin and Iskandaroun,” the Patriarch said. (As in many Eastern Catholic rites, a married Syriac Catholic man may be ordained a priest.)
During his homily, before the ordination according to the Syriac Antiochian rite, which took place before communion, the patriarch addressed the future priest saying: “You represent the youth of our Church. It is true that we look to the past, the past of our fathers and grandfathers who suffered so much for the love of the Lord Jesus, but the young people are waiting for you to testify to them of their faith in the Lord Jesus, and to to help them rediscover a living hope.
Noting that his role as a missionary priest “is a very great responsibility for a young priest”, the patriarch encouraged the future priest by reminding him of the words of Saint Paul, the Apostle of the nations: “My grace is sufficient for you.
“The vast majority of the faithful who accompanied me from Istanbul to Mardin were Syriac Catholics. They number more than 1,200 people in Istanbul, who were born in Mardin, a city so tried for a century and which now has only a few hundred Christians served by a single priest,” Patriarch Younan told the Register.
“Our biggest challenge is how to inspire young Turks with faith and hope, that Jesus wants them to stay in their ancestral land despite oppressions and challenges. On the other hand, the temptation to emigrate to the The West causes concern among parents, because the so-called democracy of Western culture based on extreme secularization, poses a real danger to living the Christian faith and ethics among our young people,” Patriarch Younan pointed out.
The Syriac Catholic Church continues to face the westward emigration of its faithful from Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
As for his official meeting with the Turkish President, Patriarch Younan told the Register: “With God’s help and thanks to our Patriarchal Vicar and his counsel in Turkey, I was able to carry out this meeting successfully and without intention Politics”.
He remarked to President Erdogan that this was the sixth time he had visited Turkey as patriarch “knowing that it is the cradle of our people who have been moved from Mardin to Syria”.
The Turkish President had told Patriarch Younan during their official meeting: “It is well known and certain that the Syriacs are part of Turkey, and we are working to make full use of their rights, just like the rest of the citizens. We have done our best to allow citizens, regardless of their religion, to practice their religious rites freely.
President Erdogan also said, “We have improved the conditions of endowments belonging to various religious groups, and we are continuing this effort with regard to improving the rights and property belonging to endowments.”
Of his meeting with Erdogan, the Patriarch shared that “I had to thank the President for his affirmations to respect and protect Turkish minorities and for his promise to return to us our patriarchal seat of Mardin, which was once confiscated and turned into a museum. We hope that the process of restoring our patriarchy will be finalized within the next year, as a proof of justice and concrete tolerance.
The Patriarch also paid an official visit to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople at his Patriarchal See in Istanbul.
“It was a very brotherly meeting,” Patriarch Younan told the Register.
“I can say the same of the subsequent visit to the Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Apostolic Church. In both visits, we prayed together in their respective churches, that the Lord Jesus hasten the day of visible unity among Christians in Turkey, where we experienced the ecumenism of blood. The Lord has indeed recommended us to remain united in him, loving one another, so that the world will recognize us as his disciples,” Patriarch Younan said.
Other visits during Patriarch Younan’s trip to Turkey included: The Papal Embassy in Ankara; with the Governor of Istanbul; the Archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchal Vicariate of Istanbul; Zaafaran Monastery near Mardin, which is the former seat of the Syriac Patriarch; the (Syriac Orthodox) Church of the Forty Martyrs, St. Hormez Chaldean Catholic Church and St. Joseph Armenian Catholic Church, all in Mardin; the historic town of Qal’ in Mara, near Mardin and the former Syriac Orthodox monastery of Saint Gabriel (Deir Al-Omar) in Tur Abdin.
“We concluded our historic visit to Turkey with a joyful Divine Liturgy of Mass in the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ephesus,” the Patriarch said.
In his homily in Ephesus, the Patriarch prayed to the Lord, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary “to bring peace, security and stability to the whole world, especially in countries martyred by wars and conflicts “.
He noted in his homily that “the harvest is indeed abundant, but unfortunately the doers are few in this land. Let us pray that those who act may spread this good news and teach the Lord Jesus, through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, with love towards all, and by building in peace solid and firm bridges between all countries, peoples and individuals.
“We were well convinced that our Heavenly Mother well understood our prayers and supplications, addressed in her native language, Syriac-Aramaic,” the patriarch told the Register.