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Church leaders call for help in ending Syria conflict

20 July 2012


In sight: a tank operated by President al-Assad's forces is seen through the scope of a weapon of a member of the Free Syrian Army in Homs, on Sunday

In sight: a tank operated by President al-Assad's forces is seen through the scope of a weapon of a member of the Free Syrian Army in Homs, on Sunda...

LORD CAREY, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has joined with the Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Dr Mustafa Ceric, and the director-general of the World Dialogue Council, Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff, to call on "responsible religious leaders" to play a bigger part in seeking an end to the fighting in Syria.

In an article published in the Financial Times on Tuesday, the three signatories said that there was still time to learn from the mistakes committed in the Bosnian conflict.

The article pointed to the fact that Syria contained "multiple religious groupings and minorities, many of whom live in growing fear for their lives. Extremists are using these fears to fan the flames of conflict." The three authors expressed astonishment that none of the international initiatives on Syria had "made provision for authentic religious leaders to participate, and seek support for the crucial moderating role they could play".

Lord Carey and his two co-authors called on the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and the UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, with other leaders and agencies, "to help convene the religious leaders of Syria and the region to address how the authentic voices of moderation can best be amplified to mitigate the strife". Every avenue should be explored "before the conflict becomes not only a national disaster but a regional catastrophe of enormous human cost".

The death toll in Syria is rising steadily, and the centre of the capital, Damascus - the bastion of the Bashar al-Assad government - is among the latest battle zones.

This morning Syrian state television reported that the national security minister, Hisham Ikhtiar, has died from injuries sustained in a suicide bomb attack on the national security offices, in Damascus, on Wednesday. He is the fourth regime insider killed as a result of the attack. Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and  deputy chief of the army, and the Defence Minister, Daoud Rajha, also died.



The outbreak of fighting in Damascus represents one of the most serious challenges faced by the Syrian authorities thus far, coming on the heels of a number of high-level defections from the ranks of both the military and civilian élite. In the latter category, Syria's ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, has fled to Qatar, and has made accusations about his former masters, their alleged involvement in the killing of civilians, and their readiness to use chemical weapons if need be.

In a BBC interview, Mr Fares said that "Bashar al-Assad's regime is like a cornered and wounded wolf. It will do anything to survive."

But there is plenty that the regime can do. Despite setbacks, the Assad leadership has vast arsenals of military equipment to call on, plus thousands of troops who have so far been kept in barracks. Syrian opposition groups acknowledge, too, that certain sections of Syrian society - those with vested interests in the status quo - still support the Assad government.

Among the latter group are at least some of the country's Christian minority, who fear that the current system of rule might be replaced by one based on fundamentalist Islam. Christians' ambivalence about the outcome of the current conflict has put them under psychological pressure, as well as in physical danger.

A rare truce between the rebels and Syrian government forces last week, however, enabled 63 Christian residents of Homs to be taken out to safety, after enduring months of hardship in crossfire between the two parties to the conflict.

In the mean time, the group International Orthodox Christian Charities is one of several that are organising aid supplies to besieged communities in Homs and elsewhere. The programme executive for special focus on the Middle East at the World Council of Churches, Michel Nseir, told Ecumenical News International that some Jesuit monks and Orthodox priests were still able to operate in the old city of Homs.

The Damascus-based Church of Antioch is co-ordinating its aid efforts through local churches, the Syrian Red Crescent, and other Islamic organisations in the country. Christian groups are also helping Syrians who have taken refuge in neighbouring states.

But the ultimate fate of Syrian Christians as a whole is as uncertain as the future of the country itself - a country that finds itself in the midst of a civil war in which both sides have all to win and all to lose.

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