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Aleppo Archbishop warns: 'You are arming our enemies'

16 October 2015


War zone: pro-Assad forces celebrate the retaking of the town of Achan, in Hama province, last weekend, after support from Russian air strikes

War zone: pro-Assad forces celebrate the retaking of the town of Achan, in Hama province, last weekend, after support from Russian air strikes

A SYRIAN archbishop has pleaded with Britain to stop backing Islamist rebel groups in the war against President Bashar al-Assad.

At a meeting in the House of Lords on Tuesday, the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, the Most Revd Jean-Clément Jeanbart, accused Britain of siding with “fundamentalist jihadists who want to kill everyone who is not similar to them”.

He said that Britain was “investing in fundamentalist jihadis and mercenaries who are killing anyone who is saying anything about freedom, about citizenship, about religious liberty, about democracy”.

It was a “big lie” that moderate rebel forces in support of freedom and democracy were at war with the Assad regime, the Archbishop said. The four-year civil war was, he said, a contest between a modern secular state, and jihadis who were smashing its culture and massacring religious minorities.

He accused the Western media of presenting an inaccurate depiction of the conflict. “Please, I ask you, I beseech you to have another look at our situation to see what is underneath what is happening,” the Archbishop told a meeting organised by Aid to the Church in Need, a charity set up to help persecuted Christians.

“It is terrible for us to see all the marvellous things we had, destroyed for pretend democracy and freedom,” he said. “Our country was fighting for 50 to 60 years to become a secularist regime, a pluralistic country, to give citizens their rights of religion and freedom of choice . . . and you are destroying this work and pushing on us fundamental jihadis who want to kill everyone who is not similar to them.

“They don’t accept anyone who is different. Anyone who is not a fundamentalist Muslim has no rights: no right to live, no right to be in society, no right to be a citizen.”

He went on: “We are suffering a lot; we are suffering because we have lost many, many dear people, many beloved people. We are suffering because our country has been in a flood of blood. We are suffering because they [the jihadi rebel groups] have destroyed everything — our economy, our industry, our churches, everything.

“The most important thing we are suffering from is that they are destroying man. They are taking away our right to choose what we want to be.”

Archbishop Jeanbart said that he was glad of the opportunity to speak directly to MPs because Syria was being isolated by the international community.

The Syrian representative to the UN, the Archbishop said, had written 258 letters to the UN presidency protesting about the plight of his country without receiving a single reply.

He said that most Christians in Syria supported Russian military intervention, because it gave them the rare hope that there might be a favourable end to the conflict.

“My colleagues — bishops, priests, and faithful — in Syria now feel they have hope that the problems will be sorted, and the war will finish, since Russia intervened and struck Daesch [IS] seriously,” he said. “That is what they think.”

The conflict in Syria has claimed about a quarter of a million lives, and it has displaced some six million people, most of whom are living in camps along the country’s borders, while thousands of others have entered Europe through Turkey.

David Cameron, who failed in his attempt to persuade Parliament to bomb the regime two years ago, said that he supports so-called moderate rebels as the “legitimate opposition” against the “butcher Assad”; but critics of his policy, including a former Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, say that such “moderate” groups scarcely exist.

The meeting in the Lords was attended by the Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood, who said that President Assad must be defeated, because an “inclusive government” could never be formed under his rule.

Mr Ellwood said: “The recent Russia action is a clear demonstration of the Assad regime’s weakness. Assad cannot survive without Russian or Iranian support, and Assad cannot win the war in Syria.

“We don’t buy for one moment his spurious argument that he can protect religious minorities.

“His actions, in effect, have fuelled sectarian violence, and his regime is ultimately responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians; and as long as Assad is in power, the conflict will go on.”

The report launched at the meeting, with messages from Pope Francis and Mr Cameron, said that Islamist persecution was driving Christians from Syria and Iraq at such a rate that they might disappear from those countries within five years.

Mr Cameron is expected to again put his case to Parliament for British military intervention in the Syrian civil war within the next few weeks.


Not quite 'the highest standards' - Press column


Rising fears for hostages after killings

ISLAMIC STATE militants are believed to have killed three Christian hostages in Syria, and are threatening to murder 200 more, unless a ransom of up to £65,000 is paid for each one.

The victims were Assyrian Christian men captured in February when IS overran more than 30 villages in north-east Syria. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the killings were seen in a video released by IS. The men were killed with a pistol shot to the back of the head. Three other Assyrian Christians in the video said that they, too, would be killed if a ransom was not paid.

Diana Yaqco, of the watchdog A Demand for Action, condemned “this latest act of barbarism”, and spoke of the “systematic ethno-religious cleansing of Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans”. She called for an internationally protected safe haven on ancestral land in Iraq, and action by special forces to free the other hostages.

The number of captives is unclear. An early figure reported was 90, but a later was 250. About 45 of the elderly and infirm are said to have been freed. Negotiations led by Bishop Ephrem Otnaial had been suspended after demands became “unbearable”, the director of the Assyrian Human Rights Network, Osama Edward, said.

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