THE newly elected head of the largest Syrian opposition group,
the Syrian National Council (SNC), George Sabra, has called on
church leaders to follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI and visit
the region to encourage Christians to stay put.
Mr Sabra, a Christian and a veteran opponent of the regime of
President Bashar al-Assad, escaped from Syria early this year. Last
Friday, he was chosen as the new SNC leader. Two days later, after
intensive discussions in the capital of Qatar, Doha, the SNC joined
other opposition groups in a new unified front, the National
Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
The latter is headed by Moaz al-Khatib, formerly imam of the
Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He had been jailed for a time for
supporting the popular uprising, and also fled from his home
The choice of a Christian to head the SNC, which will hold 22 of
the 60 seats on the National Coalition's ruling body, has been
widely welcomed as a positive signal to minorities in Syria. The
Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that the election
of Mr Sabra proved that "what is happening in Syria is not an
ethnic or sectarian struggle, but tension between the demands of
the people and an oppressive regime."
Mr Sabra, in an interview last weekend with an Italian
newspaper, said that Christians were an integral part of Syrian
society, and called for more church leaders to attest to this.
"Christians do not need people to protect them, because they are
joint proprietors of the country, together with the other
He went on to praise the visit to Lebanon by the Pope (
News, 21 September). "What we heard from Benedict XVI we have
not heard from any other religious authority in the Middle East.
The Pope argued that the Arab Spring was a search for dignity and
freedom by Arab peoples, and he urged Christians not to leave their
countries." After "finally having heard a real Christian voice, as
a Christian, I can say that I am proud to be one," Mr Sabra
The new coalition was formed after pressure from Gulf states and
the West for the creation of a united front that could speak for
the whole Syrian opposition, form a government in exile, and gain
international recognition. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the
Arab League were the first bodies to recognise it, while its
formation was praised in most Western capitals.
Mr Sabra made it clear, however, that further progress would
have to be accompanied by more armed action inside Syria: "We need
only one thing to support our right to survive and to protect
ourselves: we need weapons." As long as President Assad remained in
power, he said, "dialogue remains a word devoid of meaning." But he
promised that the new Syria would be inclusive - "democratic,
potentially secular, reconciled, and free from oppression".
As the fighting inside Syria intensifies, and the stream of
refu- gees out of the country swells, the chances of a peaceful
resolution seem as distant as ever. Pope Benedict said last week
that he had hoped to send a delegation of priests to Damascus "as a
sign of my own solidarity and that of the whole Church for the
Syrian people, as well as our spiritual closeness to the Christian
communities in that country". But, owing to "a variety of
circumstances and developments, it was not possible to carry out
this initiative as planned". Instead, he sent an envoy to Lebanon
to meet and help co-ordinate the efforts of Roman Catholic
charities working with Syrian refugees.