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Church leaders condemn Syria strikes

20 April 2018


A Syrian firefighter is seen inside the Scientific Research Centre in Damascus, destroyed in Saturday’s missile attack

A Syrian firefighter is seen inside the Scientific Research Centre in Damascus, destroyed in Saturday’s missile attack

THE bombing of Syrian targets, approved by the Prime Minister to “degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability”, has been condemned by Syrian church leaders.

A joint statement issued on Saturday, the morning after the strikes, denounced it as “brutal aggression” and “a clear violation of the international laws and the UN Charter, because it is an unjustified assault on a sovereign country”.

The statement was signed by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All The East, John X; the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All The East, Ignatius Aphrem II; and the Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, Joseph Absi.

Their view was put into perspective by the Revd Stephen Griffith, a former Anglican chaplain in Damascus: “The Churches of Syria are in captivity. Their leaders dare not criticise the government of Syria for fear of the consequences, both personally and for their communities” (Comment).

On Monday, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, described the co-ordination of the strikes, carried out by British, French, and US forces, as representing “an impressive example of diplomatic energy and skill”.

He continued, however: “My question is whether the same amount of diplomatic energy and skill will be given to resolving the conflict at large.”

The strikes, which took place at about 4 a.m. local time on Saturday, were launched a week after a chemical attack on Douma, in which 70 people are believed to have died, including children, and up to 500 injured (News, 9 April).

The Prime Minister has said that the Western response had targeted a scientific research facility in Damascus, and chemical-weapons facilities near Homs. No deaths or injuries have been reported. President Donald Trump said that the three allies had “marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.

There was “a significant body of information” indicating that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack in Douma, Mrs May said on Saturday. Attempts to hold the perpetrators of previous attacks accountable had been blocked by Russia at the UN. “We cannot go back to a world where the use of chemical weapons becomes normalised, she told the House of Commons on Monday.

The Russian ambassador to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, condemned the strikes as “hooliganism in international relations”. A report by the Syrian state news agency said that Syria’s permanent representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Bassam Sabbagh, charged the three Western powers with “overt political hypocrisy through feigning sympathy with the Syrian people” and “confirming the use of chemical weapons without proofs and identifying the perpetrator within hours, to later launch the attack without respect for the international laws and charter”.

In their statement, the Syrian church leaders said that allegations that the Syrian army was using chemical weapons, and that Syria was a country that owned and used such weapons, were “unjustified and unsupported by sufficient and clear evidence”.

They called on churches in the UK, US, and France to “fulfil their Christian duties, according to the teachings of the gospel, and condemn this aggression and to call their governments to commit to the protection of international peace”. They saluted “the courage, heroism, and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army which courageously protects Syria and provide security for its people. . . They will continue to fight courageously against terrorism until every inch of the Syrian land is cleansed from terrorism.”

This is not the first time that Christian leaders have supported President Assad’s regime, with justification, they argue. In 2015, Ignatius Aphrem II survived a suicide bombing that killed three and injured five, after a terrorist disguised as a priest attempted to slip into a commemoration service for the mass killings of Syrian Christians by the Ottoman Empire’s army in 1915 (News, 1 July, 2016).

A statement by the National Evangelical Synod in Syria and Lebanon also condemned the “oppressive aggression” as “evidence of a desire to destabilise Syria after the National Army and government are close to eradicating terrorism and eventually stop violence in the country”.

The director of the Awareness Foundation, the Rt Revd Nadim Nassar, a Syrian C of E priest, repeated his opposition to military intervention.

“We know from Iraq, from Libya, from Yemen, from Afghanistan, that military intervention fuels the fire of violence,” he said on Monday. “And yet we think in the West that airstrikes . . . could settle the conflict, which is absolute nonsense.”

He dismissed the Prime Minister’s claim that Britain was not attempting to interfere in the civil war: “For me this is insulting the intelligence of millions, because it’s not true. This country has been interfering in the civil war in Syria for the last six years.”

The claim by President Trump that the strikes meant “mission accomplished” was “a joke”, Mr Nassar said. “Since they are able to co-operate and co-ordinate with the Russians about war, why can’t they do that with peace?” What would end chemical attacks was a peace process, he said. “Nobody would use chemical weapons if we had that.”

He maintained his criticism of the silence of the Church (News, 6 May, 2016). “To tell you the truth, we are cowards,” he said. “We are unable to reclaim the prophetic voice, which is the mandate that the risen Lord gave us.”

The World Council of Churches has issued a call for an immediate ceasefire and the resumption of the UN-led Geneva peace process.

Dr Cocksworth, who speaks in the House of Lords on Syria, repeated his call for the engagement of all international players in the pursuit of a political solution. He has previously argued that peace in Syria would be impossible to achieve without co-operation with Russia (News, 21 April 2017), and has told the House of Lords that “sudden and violent regime change in Damascus cannot be made into the condition for peace”, and that there is “no viable opposition government-in-waiting in Syria”.

“We must say that there is unanimous repulsion about the use of chemical weapons, and that every proper effort must be made to dissuade and outlaw them,” he said on Monday. “There are non-military ways of doing that that must be pursued rigorously, aggressively.”

A British delegation that includes Anglican priests visited Syria this week. A former Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, and the Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Newington in London, Canon Giles Fraser, met the Syrian Minister for Religious Affairs, Dr Mohammad Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed, who is subject to EU restrictive measures (the ruling states that he “shares responsibility for the regime’s violent repression against the civilian population”), and also the Grand Mufti of Syria, Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun.

Canon Fraser tweeted on Saturday: “With the Grand Mufti of Syria — the top Muslim cleric in Syria — in the astonishing Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, talking about how love is stronger than missiles. Very warm greeting despite the bombings.”

The trip was led by the Revd Andrew Ashdown, a C of E priest with permission to officiate in the diocese of Winchester, who has been to Syria a number of times, and has defended his meetings with President Assad (News, 16 September, 2016)

Throughout the Syrian conflict, C of E bishops have tended to oppose military intervention. In February this year, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, asked what the Government was doing “to put further pressure on the Assad regime to stop this terrible suffering that is going on”.

The Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, suggested in December that there was a danger that supporting anti-Assad forces might result in the “strengthening of anti-democratic Islamist forces”.

The Syrian Negotiation Commission, an umbrella opposition group, met senior officials at the Vatican on Tuesday. The commission’s vice-president, Hanadi Abou Arab, called on European allies to pursue the prosecution of those guilty of war crimes, including “a genuine effort to set up a special tribunal outside of the UN Security Council where the regime continues to receive unconditional protection from its backers”.

The UN special envoy leading the Geneva peace process, Staffan de Mistura, has expressed disappointment with the Syrian government’s failure to engage on issues other than terrorism, such as a new constitution, describing it as a “a big missed opportunity” (News, 22 December). On Wednesday, he said that he was undertaking “intensive high-level consultations” in the hope of securing a “meaningful relaunch” of the process.

Further to his meeting with the Secretary-General in Riyadh on 16 April 2018, and in view of the current tensions, the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is undertaking intensive high-level consultations with the aim of proactively ascertaining the options for a meaningful relaunch of the UN-facilitated political process as called for in Security Council resolution 2254 (2015). He is due to meet Turkish, Russian, and Iranian officials, European Ministers and US representatives, and has already had consultations with the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, and Saudi leaders.

As the Church Times went to press, the investigators for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had yet to gain entry to the site of the suspected attack in Douma. It will only determine whether chemical weapons were used, not who was responsible: the mandate of the Joint Investigative Mechanism of the UN and the OPCW expired in November, leaving a vacuum for investigation, and the Security Council has failed to agree on anything to replace it.

In 2016, the Joint Investigative Mechanism concluded that Syrian government forces had used chlorine as a chemical weapon on three occasions, and that Islamic State militants had used sulphur mustard. In 2017, it concluded that the Syrian government was responsible for the sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of people (News, 22 December).

Attention is already turning to Idlib, the last major area still held by the opposition, where hundreds of thousands of fighters and civilians have been transferred from areas now under government control (News, 13 April). The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned in Le Journal du Dimanche of “a new humanitarian disaster”. The UN’s humanitarian appeal is just 15 per cent funded, with the UK the most generous donor.

“People cannot take any more,” the Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Homs, Mons. Jean-Arbach, told Aid to the Church in Need this week. “They simply want to live an ordinary life, to sleep peacefully in their beds and wake and go to work, and not to the sound of falling bombs. . . We need prayers, prayers and more prayers. It is the only thing that can bring us unity in this country.”

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