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Syrian Christian leaders condemn air strikes as unjustified and illegal

16 April 2018


Syrians ride in a carriage in Douma district, east of Damascus, on Tuesday. Syrians in Douma are opting to use horses for transport, as streets need reconstruction after being pounded during six years of war

Syrians ride in a carriage in Douma district, east of Damascus, on Tuesday. Syrians in Douma are opting to use horses for transport, as streets need r...

THE bombing of Syrian targets, ordered 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 of 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”. It 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 analysed by the Revd Stephen Griffith, a former Anglican chaplain in Damascus, on Monday. He writes (below): “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.”

On Monday, the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, described the coordination 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 morning, took place a week after a chemical attack on Douma, in which 70 people are believed to have died, including children, with up to 500 injured (News, 9 April). The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has said that the strikes targeted a scientific research facility in Damascus, and chemical weapons facilities near Homs. It is understood that there have been no deaths or injuries. The US President, Donald Trump, said that the three allies had “marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality”.

The intervention was “not about interfering in a civil war” or “regime change”, but “a limited, targeted and effective strike with clear boundaries that expressly sought to avoid escalation and did everything possible to prevent civilian casualties”, Mrs May said on Saturday.

There was, she said, “a significant body of information” indicating that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack in Douma. Attempts to hold the perpetrators of previous attacks accountable had been blocked by Russia at the UN: “We have no choice but to conclude that diplomatic action on its own will not be any more effective in the future than it has been in the past.”

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, had 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”.

On Sunday, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told the BBC that Mrs May should have sought parliamentary approval for the action, and that he could “only countenance involvement in Syria if there is UN authority behind it”. In a statement to the House of Commons on Monday, Mrs May said that attempts to conceal the facts of the Douma attack were under way, supported by Russia. Citing the legal basis for action, she said that it was the same as that used to justify the UK’s role in the NATO intervention in Kosovo. “We cannot go back to a world where the use of chemical weapons becomes normalised,” she said.

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 “fulfill 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”; and 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)

The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Antoine Audo, told Tg2000, an Italian television channel: “The United States and Russia are using Syria to wage a war against one another” and compared the situation to Iraq, “when they destroyed that country saying that there were chemical weapons.”

Church leaders beyond the Middle East have issued calls for peace. On Sunday, Pope Francis said that he was “deeply troubled by the current world situation, in which, despite the instruments available to the international community, there is still difficulty in agreeing to a common action in favour of peace in Syria and other regions of the world.”

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.”

Bishop 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, “which, as we all know, is the only hope for Syrian people”. He has previously argued that peace in Syria would be impossible to achieve without co-operation with Russia (News, 21 April 2017).

He went on: “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. There are non-military ways of doing that that must be pursued rigorously, aggressively. A moral consideration in any conflict where force is used is: will it lead to success?

“Moral judgement is deferred in this case, to see whether it does lead to the cessation of use of chemical weapons; and, moreover, will it serve the cause of peace.”

A British delegation that includes Anglican priests is currently visiting Syria. A former Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, and the Priest-in-Charge of St Mary’s, Newington, Canon Giles Fraser, have 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.

“With the Grand Mufti of Syria — the top Muslim cleric in Syria — in the astonishing Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus,” Canon Fraser tweeted on Saturday, “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 meeting with President Assad (News, 16 September, 2016).

Throughout the Syrian conflict, C of E Bishops have tended to oppose military intervention. When it was debated by the House of Lords in 2013, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he was not convinced that military intervention would prevent further use of chemical weapons (News, 30 August, 2013). In the 2015 debate on strikes targeting Islamic State, however, he suggested that the criteria for a just war had been met. (News, 4 December, 2015).

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”.

In 2016, Bishop Cocksworth led a House of Lords debate on a political solution in Syria, in which he argued that “sudden and violent regime change in Damascus cannot be made into the condition for peace”, and that there was “no viable opposition Government-in-waiting in Syria”.

In Syria this week, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will seek to begin its fact-finding mission. It will only determine if 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).


The Syrian Churches and President Assad

The Revd Stephen Griffith writes:

For generations, the Assad regime has led the ethno-religious minorities in Syria to believe that the regime protected them. It warned that, after him, there would be bloodshed.

Among the first acts of Bashar al Assad at the beginning of the uprising was to open the prison gates to let the imprisoned jihadi thugs out. He was creating the chaos which he had predicted, leading to the creation of ISIS and many other violent groups who would target Christians.

On every Christian feast for decades, the heads of the Churches in Syria have read out statements praising the Syrian government. They were written by the government. In my days in Damascus from 1997-2002, I sometimes heard them read badly; but, as the State Security were in the church, no comment was possible.

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.

Some people speak of the protection which the Syrian government has offered the minorities, especially the Christians. Protection is the right word, remembering that Syria’s rulers are a greedy mafia who use anything to enrich themselves and their friends and families. When the various Christian towns in the Qalamoun region fell to different jihadi groups, the Syrian army was nowhere to be seen protecting the people.

My Syrian friends, especially the Muslim ones, insist that, before the Assad takeover in 1971, there were no sectarian tensions; and certainly I found that Muslims in Syria treated myself as a man of religion”, and Christians generally with respect.

The statement of the heads of the Churches may represent the genuine belief of the prelates. However, at no point in their ministry have they been allowed to make any negative comment about the bloody oppression of the Syrian government — to comment, for instance, on the UN report condemning the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons on 21 August 2013.

The great Church where St Paul was converted is truly in captivity.

The Revd Stephen Griffith is a retired priest in York. From 1996 to 2002 he was the Anglican Chaplain in Damascus.

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