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Christians in Syria will be protected, Assad pledges

25 April 2014

REUTERS

Sunday caller: President Assad visits the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, north-east of Damascus, on Easter Day

Sunday caller: President Assad visits the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, north-east of Damascus, on Easter Day

PRESIDENT Bashar al-Assad has promised the Christian minority in Syria that his government will do all within its power to protect them and their churches.

He was speaking during a visit on Easter Day to the small town of Maaloula, north-east of Damascus, which was recently recaptured by government forces after being in the hands of an Islamist rebel group (News, 17 April).

Maaloula, and other sites sacred to Christians, he told the state-run Syrian News Agency (SANA), would "continue to serve as a monument to the civilisation of Syrians".

This rare public appearance of the President outside Damascus was important in two ways. First, his presence in Maaloula on Easter Day was designed to show the world that his regime is the protector of Christians, and it is the Islamist rebels who represent a threat to their safety and future security in the country.

Second, President Assad wanted to repeat the fact that rebels have been driven out of the strategically important area north of Damascus - a key development to support the President's new assertion that his forces are inflicting a succession of defeats on the insurgents. Another sign of his new confidence is his decision to put himself forward for re-election in June.

The holding of presidential elections at a time of widespread civil conflict in Syria has been widely condemned. Both the British and United States governments denounced the forthcoming vote as a parody of democracy. A US State Department spokesman said that "calling for a de-facto referendum rings especially hollow now as the regime continues to massacre the very electorate it purports to represent."

President Assad's determination to stay in power for another seven years also effectively brings an end to the prospect of a negotiated solution to the Syrian crisis, given that the removal of the current President is regarded as a fundamental condition for a diplomatic settlement.

The latest developments in Syria underline the dilemma that the minority community faces, as hard-line Islamists increasingly stamp their influence on the rebel ranks. While many Christians see a more hopeful future under President Assad than under any future Islamist-influenced government, they court danger if they express such views. In the face of an uncertain future and amid continuing bloodshed, celebration of Easter was muted in Syria this year.

The mood was all the more gloomy because Easter fell two days before the anniversary of the disappearance of the Syrian Oriental Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mor Yohanna Ibrahim,and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Paul Yazigi. No word has been heard from their captors since the churchmen were dragged at gunpoint from their car on their way home after a visit to Turkey (News, 3 May 2013).

An urgent appeal for the outside world to intervene to end the violence has been made by the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III, who resides in Damascus. He referred in particular to a missile strike on an Armenian Roman Catholic school in the capital's Old City of Damascus (under government control) earlier this month, in which one person was killed and many children were injured, some severely.

In a report to a Roman Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, Patriarch Gregorios said: "May the world heed the cries, tears, and the prayers of the children of Syria. These attacks on schools, children, churches, and homes are criminal attacks with the aim of intimidating Christians who find themselves increasingly targeted."

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