BEIRUT — More than 800 Syrian and Iraqi refugees were bused to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon for a Christmas Mass in an atmosphere of "great sadness."
"The assembly could not stop their tears, especially upon seeing many young children and youngsters moving their arms, imploring the mercy and help from on high," said Syriac Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan. The Beirut-based Syrian Patriarchate bused the refugees to the shrine for the Dec. 21 Mass.
The patriarch told Catholic News Service that among the offertory gifts were large maps of Syria and Iraq dotted with photographs of some clergy members and laypeople "murdered by terrorist fanatics."
He said that, in his homily, he acknowledged that many Christians in the Middle East, particularly the Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the basilica, "could not share in the joy of Christmas, because of the horrendous events going on in their countries."
The patriarch said he told the faithful that they should never lose hope, but instead "renew their hope, against all hope, that the light of the Divine Infant of Bethlehem will conquer the darkness, and justice will be made to all those persecuted or uprooted from their land." He also told them their plight could resemble the hardship of the Holy Family fleeing their homeland following the birth of Jesus.
Patriarch Younan told CNS he denounced "the Machiavellian policy" of the Western countries since the beginning of the crisis in Syria.
Lebanese authorities say there are more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, equal to about one-quarter of Lebanon's population.
Meanwhile, the exodus of Christians from Iraq has reduced their numbers from 1 million to less than 400,000, said the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate.
Among those fleeing Syrian violence were Iraqis who had sought refuge in Syria after the violence in their country; they are now refugees again.
The patriarch implored the international community "to clearly condemn the targeting of civil areas where no combatants are fighting and to spare Christian ancient sites." He also appealed for the release of all those kidnapped in Syria, including the archbishops, nuns and priests whose fate remains unknown.
Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna of Aleppo and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo were kidnapped April 22 in northern Syria while on a humanitarian mission. The nuns were kidnapped Dec. 2 from the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, Syria.
The patriarch invoked Our Lady of Lebanon in his homily, saying: "O Virgin Mary, queen of peace, teach us how to look with Jesus' eyes at all our tribulations, that we may walk with him, without fear toward the eternal happiness."
Patriarch Younan, a native of the Syrian province of Hassake, served for 14 years as bishop of the New Jersey-based Diocese of Our Lady of Deliverance for Syriac Catholics in the United States and Canada. He was elected patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church in January 2009.