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
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
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
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
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