CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Syriac Catholic young people celebrate their faith

BEIRUT (CNS): Driven by zeal and strong ties to the roots of their faith, 450 young people from all over the world gathered in Lebanon for the first Syriac Youth International Convention, open to people between 18 and 35 years of age.
Syriac Catholics from 15 countries attended the July 17 to 22 event at Our Lady of Light convent in Faytroun, which combined prayer, educational workshops and presentations related to Syriac history, as well as visits to Syriac monasteries and holy sites. Participants also met with Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan.
“Our main objective is to give the youth hope ... because of what we have suffered, especially in Syria and Iraq,” Father Jules Boutros, who heads the pastoral youth committee for the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate, said, noting that more than 60 per cent of Syriac Catholics have emigrated from the Middle East in the last decade. 
“They have lost everything or almost everything and have been diffused all over the world,” he said of the Syriac faithful. The convention gave the young adults, who now mostly live in the diaspora, a springboard to foster global solidarity and to keep them united with their church.
Twenty-six-year-old Fawzy Basily was one of 20 young people who came from Aleppo, Syria.
“This is the first time for a worldwide Syriac Catholic conference and we want all the world to know that we Christians are still in Aleppo. We are strong in faith despite all we went through, and we will continue on,” he said.
He recounted how their parish church in Aleppo, Our Lady of the Annunciation, was damaged in 2013-2014, saying, “That was a terrible year. Missiles from everywhere, bombs and explosions.”
He said, “Not one of us was hurt. We believe Our Lady protected us.” The Scouts worked together to clear the debris and the broken glass, from which they created an icon of Our Lady of the Annunciation. 
For 20-year-old Elias Atmaja, the convention was a chance not only for a spiritual renewal but also to reconnect with old friends from Aleppo. 
Atmaja now lives in Belgium, from where he came to the event with 22 other Syriac young people. 
“It’s a big change,” the aeronautical engineering student said of his adoptive country, noting that it’s a spiritually dry environment, atheism is rampant, and many people there consider it strange to go to church. 
“In Belgium, they don’t know there are Christians in Syria,” he added.
“Here at the convention, we have an opportunity to share and renew our faith and feel that the Church is alive,” Atmaja said. 
“It will be sad to leave,” he admitted, but added that he’s going back to Belgium recharged.
Shahad, a 32-year-old Iraqi who asked that her last name not be published, said she appreciated the religious freedom in Lebanon. 
In Lebanon, Christians account for approximately 40 per cent of the population. The country’s president is a Maronite Catholic, and half of the country’s 128 parliamentary seats are reserved for Christians.
“The Christians of Lebanon feel that they belong in their homeland,” Shahad said, adding, “I wish that Christians in Iraq could live like this.” 
Natives of Basra, Iraq, Shahad and her family moved to Mosul, where they faced increasing threats from terrorist groups. Their next move was 2008 to Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in the northern part of the country. Six years later, some 100,000 Iraqi Christians also fled to Irbil, when they were uprooted from Mosul and the Nineveh Plain by the Islamic State. The convention hosted 40 young adults from Irbil.
“In Iraq, Christians feel like strangers in our own country. The Muslims make us feel like we don’t belong,” Shahad explained. 
“Here, we have something in common,” she said of the gathering. “And I can see that Christians will always be united by our faith. This gives me hope for our future.”
On July 22, Patriarch Younan and Syriac bishops from around the world concelebrated Mass for the youth.
Before Mass, the convention participants had an open forum with the patriarch. The first question: Will another such gathering be planned?
“Of course, we wish to,” the patriarch responded, to thunderous applause, noting, “You are all smiling.”
He told them, “Now you have to be the missionaries in your parish. Seek God, follow him, wherever you are in the world.” 
Patriarch Younan assured the gathered youth that their struggles and concerns would be conveyed to the synod. “I give thanks to the Lord for what I am seeing here, how these youths are really happy because of their faith, no matter what their difficulties,” he said.
The enthusiasm of the convention participants is a testimony that “our priests really understand what it is to be a missionary in the diaspora,” he said.

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