On November 13, 2018, His Holiness Mor Ignatius Aphrem II was awarded an honorary doctorate in Theology from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in Greece.
The president of the university and the Dean of the Faculty of Theology bestowed His Holiness the doctorate, in the presence of His Beatitude Ieronymos II, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, their Eminences archbishops members of the accompanying delegation: Mor Selwanos Boutros Al-Nemeh, Archbishop of Homs, Hama, Tartous, and Environs, Mor Athanasius Touma Dakkama, Patriarchal Vicar in the United Kingdom, Mor Clemis Daniel Kourieh, Metropolitan of Beirut, and Very Rev. Raban Joseph Bali, and a number of Their Graces Archbishops and clergy of the Church of Greece, as well as academic figures from Athens, in addition to the Academic staff of the university.
The president of the university expressed his happiness to bestow to His Holiness the honorary doctorate, assuring on behalf of the academic staff and the university their respect to His Holiness for the hard effort and service he is doing to spread the word of God, as well as to let the voice of all persecuted Christians reach the whole world.
His Holiness thanked the president of Athens University as well as all the academic staff, considering that the doctorate is an honoring to all the Christians of the Middle East.
His Holiness then gave a speech entitled: “Christians in the Middle East: Is there a Future?” He spoke about the history of Christianity in the Middle East, and in Antioch where the disciples were first called Christians. He then gave an overview of the situation under the pagans; he said “though peace and non-violence are characteristic of the Christian teachings, the world was not ready to accept that”. He then went to explain the situation with the beginning of Islam and how Christians made a positive role to the Islamic culture, especially in the translation of books from Greek and Syriac language in Arabic, and some of them held key positions in the local governments. “Nonetheless” His Holiness remarked “Christians did not always enjoy a peaceful life and a great degree of freedom under Muslim rule. At times, they were forced to convert to Islam; if they refuse, they were allowed to live on the condition that they pay a poll tax or Djeziah, often too high to endure”. He added “Despite the fact that Christians never took sides in any ethnic or confessional conflicts among the Muslims, they ended up paying the highest price because they are a peace-loving people who are commanded to love their enemies, reject violence and embrace peace at all times”.
His Holiness then described the Sayfo genocide which wiped out more than 2 million Christians: Armenians, Syriacs, and Greeks; he assured that “Most of the victims were killed because they refused to deny Christ”.
Then, His Holiness moved to talk about the new history, and the new genocides performed by groups of extremists and terrorists. He mentioned the suffering of the people of Mosul, who “suddenly found themselves in the streets of neighboring cities, jobless, homeless, and stripped of their rights to exist in the place where they were born”. He also spoke about the Syrian crisis, and the persecution of Christians, especially that some Christian villages such as Sadad were attacked by the terrorist groups; he considered that “This makes it very hard on the Christian communities to return to their completely-destroyed houses and to rebuild them; however, we are hopeful that the reconstruction process will slowly take place and the trust gradually rebuilt”.
He then spoke about the two abducted archbishops of Aleppo Mor Gregorius Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji.
His Holiness assured that “Despite all the adverse and hostile environment that they live in, Christians did not abandon their faith or deny their Lord, for they strongly believe that nothing shall separate them from the love of Christ”.
Finally, His Holiness made several suggestions to protect Christians in the Middle East: 1) End the wars and violence; 2) Equal Citizenship and Strong Secular Governments; 3) Interreligious Dialogue; 4) Building bridges with Muslim societies; 5) Reconciliation; 6) Advocacy.
At the end, His Holiness asked all to “pray for Christians in the Middle East. Pray that we may continue to live in our homeland, the land of our forefathers. Pray for those who are persecuted because of their faith everywhere. Pray for those who are helping their persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East in the relief and support of any sort”.