EVERY morning and evening, the bells ring out from the seventh-century desert monastery of St James the Mutilated at Qara, 60 miles north of Damascus, in Syria, as the community of Carmelite monks and nuns follow their ancient liturgy in Arabic and French.
The lines of Islamic State (IS), or Daesh, are only 8km to the west, and 23km to the east. It was here that we spent three nights at the end of November, as part of a six-day visit by an international delegation, led by the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Mairead Maguire.
The purpose of our visit was to meet and listen to people on the ground, and see the situation for ourselves. The invitation was from the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III; and the Church acted as our hosts. The government provided a security detail to protect us, and we were free to travel at will — though at our own risk.
During the visit, we met hundreds of people: local and national political leaders, government and opposition figures, local and national Muslim and Christian leaders, members of reconciliation committees, and internally displaced refugees. We also met numerous people on the streets of towns and cities — Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawite — all of whom feel that their voices are ignored and misrepresented in the West.
We travelled to Damascus, Homs, Maaloula, and Tartous, and villages and towns in between. In Homs, we had a meeting with members of the reconcilation committee, which is led by a priest and a sheikh.
Meeting by candlelight because of regular power blackouts, we heard how Christians and Muslims in the town had been instrumental in the rehabilitation of fighters who chose to lay down their arms.
Such committees exist all over the government-controlled areas, and are doing impressive work in supporting communities in efforts towards peace and reconciliation.
Those who live in, or have fled to, the comparative safety of the government-controlled areas, whether Christian, Sunni, Shia, Alawite, or Druze, have a remarkably consistent message to the outside world:
- Stop supporting armed groups. They have become channels for weapons to the extremists, whose sole aim is an Islamic State.
- The consequences of bombing IS could be disastrous in the long term. Work together with the Syrian government to defeat IS.
- Bring all parties together in a national dialogue.
- Realities in Syria are often misrepresented in the West. There are many narratives, and those presented do not reflect the views of everyone on the ground.
- An externally imposed solution is only likely to lead to further sectarianism and chaos.
- Follow international law in your dealings with Syria.
In Tartus, we witnessed the return of the bodies of 22 soldiers to their relatives. Suddenly, a young boy of about ten, whose father’s body was being returned, stood to attention in front of us, saluted, and gave a moving speech.
One of the monks with me told us that there was no word of anger, hatred, or violence. The boy’s words were: “My father is a blessing to this country. He has given his life so that we may live in peace. But he is not dead. He is a martyr, and I honour him. Mabrouk! Mabrouk! [Congratulations!]. . . Because of him Syria will have peace.”
The people are exhausted and traumatised. Everyone wants an end to the war. Only an inclusive political solution that involves all relevant parties will achieve it.