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Priest forced to leave All Saints’, Damascus

04 August 2011

by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent

AS THE Syrian authorities’ response to the popular uprising becomes increasingly brutal, despite the start of the Islamic fast of Ramadan, the small Anglican community that remains in the country is about to be deprived of pastoral leadership.

The government in Syria has refused to renew the visa of the Revd Andrew Lake, of All Saints’ Interna­tional Anglican Church, in Damascus, and he is being forced to leave the country next Tuesday.

The government justified the decision on the grounds that, under new regulations, the Protestant Church there was no longer per­mitted to have foreigners working for it. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop in Jerusalem, the Rt Revd Suheil Dawani, have appealed against the decision, but without success.

A Western diplomat in Damascus said that the decision may have been influenced by “the displeasure at the way the US and European govern­ments are condemning the measures being taken against demonstrators”.

Mr Lake said that he will be leaving “at a very tense and anxious time for Syrians and foreigners alike. . . . None of us are sure what will happen.” The numbers attending church, he said, had dropped signi­ficantly, because many families and non-essential staff at embassies and foreign companies had left Syria.

British citizens in Syria have been advised by the embassy in Damascus to “leave now by commercial means while these are still available”. Mr Lake, who is Australian, said that diplomats had advised him to keep an open booking on flights out of the country. His intention, however, had been “to stay until security got out of hand — or until we had no congregation”.

Anglicans in Syria will be left without a priest, because the pastor to the Arabic community has returned to his home in newly independent South Sudan to obtain paperwork from the new govern­ment there. Under the regulations recently announced by the Syrian authorities, he will not be allowed to return.

The crackdown in Hama by the Syrian security forces, which began last weekend, has continued into Ramadan. The assault, led by army tanks, has left about 80 people dead, and prompted international condemnation. In all, since the uprising began, an estimated 1600 civilians have been killed and about 3000 are missing — assumed to have been detained during the many mass arrests ordered by the government. The authorities say that more than 500 soldiers and security personnel have been killed.

While the EU has imposed limited sanctions, and efforts are being made at the UN Security Council to agree on a resolution condemning the violence in Syria, there is no talk of military intervention of the kind witnessed in Libya. The Bishop of Bristol, the Rt Revd Mike Hill, commented on this, on Monday, in his blog: “I can’t be the only person wondering why the West, having rapidly decided that intervention in Libya was a righteous and necessary cause, seem less interested in the wholesale slaughter taking place in Syria.”

Hama was the scene of a massacre in 1982, when the President at the time, Hafez al-Assad, ordered the army to crush a revolt led by the Muslim Brotherhood, in which some 20,000 people were killed.

Now, the battles are focusing on Sunni-dominated cities such as Hama and Homs. The army and security services are commanded by Alawites, members of the minority sect that holds power. Syria appears to be drifting into a sectarian con­flict, which the Alawites must win if they are to continue to govern the country: thus the apparently inex­plicable level of violent repres­sion that they are prepared to condone to achieve this goal.

On the other hand, most of those holding lower ranks in the army and security services are Sunnis. There are reports that an increasing number are refusing orders to open fire on their own communities — leaving the possibility of the army’s splitting along sectarian lines.

Mr Lake said that he will be praying for all Syrians, and will continue to send out an email news­letter about developments affecting his congregation in Damascus, and elsewhere, when he is back in Australia.

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