THE first steps towards dismantling the stockpile of chemical
weapons in Syria will be taken this week with the arrival in
Damascus of a team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of
Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In many instances, they will have to carry
out their duties in war conditions; for the chemical weapons
agreement has done nothing to bring the broader conflict to a
conclusion, or throw light on the fate of three missing churchmen
An initial accord in principle between the United States and
Russia on Syria's chemical weapons was followed by many hours of
intense negotiations on the details, involving all the members of
the UN Security Council. Finally, last Friday night, the council
unanimously adopted a resolution that called for "the expeditious
destruction of the Syrian Arab Republic's chemical weapons
programme, and stringent verification thereof".
The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, described the passing of
the resolution as "the first hopeful news on Syria in a long time.
For many months I have said that the confirmed use of chemical
weapons in Syria would require a firm, united response. Tonight,
the international community has delivered."
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that the UN vote was
"ground-breaking". Britain, he said, would contribute £1.85 million
to OPCW for its Syria operations.
As the international community pats itself on the back for this
rare diplomatic initiative that has full Security Council backing,
there is unease in the Middle East that the wider conflict in Syria
is being neglected. The prevailing mood was summarised by an
editorial in an Arab Gulf newspaper: "Reducing the Syrian crisis to
the issue of chemical weapons is a mistake the international
community will massively regret.
"Syrians did not start a revolution to destroy chemical weapons.
They started a revolution for freedom and change, and they will
carry on with the revolution, despite being let down by the
Besides the rising number of deaths and injuries, and the
endless flood of refugees, the fate of the missing clerics remains
unresolved. In August last year, an Italian Jesuit, Fr Paolo
Dall'Oglio, went missing in a town in northern Syria which is
controlled by the al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant (News,
2 August 2012).
Also, nothing has been heard since April from the apparent
kidnappers of the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo,
Mor Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo,
the Most Revd Paul Yazigi. There have been contradictory reports
over the past few months about the two Archbishops; the online Al
Monitor website reported recently that authorities in Lebanon had
received "reliable reports" from Turkish government and
intelligence sources that the two men were alive.
The head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and the East,
Patriarch Youhanna X, who is the brother of Archbishop Yazigi, had
a meeting in Rome last week with Pope Francis, at which the missing
churchmen were discussed.
The Patriarch later told Vatican Radio that he was in contact
with governments and other parties to seek the release of the two
Archbishops. He said: "Until now, we don't have, unfortunately, any
official or sure information about our two brothers. We hope
they're still alive."
He said that he had discussed with Pope Francis "the presence of
Christians in the Middle East - it's a very important issue now,
because a lot of our people are leaving Syria or Lebanon."
When asked about the possibility of radical Islamists' taking
power in Syria, the Patriarch said: "We have very good
relationships with the Muslim people in general in this area. We
live together, we have the same history, the same future - we're
like one family."
He said, however, that Arab countries were now witnessing "a new
spirit of extremism from some Islamic groups, and we all refuse
that - and the Muslim people, they refuse this extremist Islamic
It was the duty of both Muslim and Christian religious leaders
to work with the people of Syria to achieve "a calm life, and