Reflections and observations on the situation in Syria, by Patriarch Gregory III Laham
The Greek Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, with his headquarters in Damascus, Gregory III Laham has spread, in recent days, a 24-point text containing “observations and reflections” on the situation in Syria.
Here is a summary of the text, taken from the site “Terrasanta.net”: The document is designed specifically as a guide that will clear up once more the position of the local Catholic Church in light of the dramatic events taking place in the country. The Patriarch laments a campaign of vilification in the action “against the shepherds of the churches in Syria and against their positions.” A campaign that Laham cannot explain, and that has made allegations that charge the bishops’ attitudes of “compromise, exploitation and collusion with the regime, of procrastination, and of servility or indolence” (No. 9).
As he has already done several times since the crisis, the president of the Syrian Catholic Episcopate reiterates that his freedom and that of his confreres is guaranteed and that “the state or its leaders have never given any indication to the pastors or called them to make a particular statement or to adopt a particular position “(n. 10).
Here self-defence becomes extremely strong, “It is subversive to doubt the credibility of the pastors of the Church or their transparency, their loyalty or their objectivity, the veracity of their sources of information or news they broadcast. The shepherds do not rely on the media, but they are in permanent contact with their priests, monks and nuns, the faithful and all other citizens “(n. 13).
The official documents that contain the positions of the Churches in recent months are easily accessible by all, says Laham. There are those published by the Catholic hierarchy and the statements of the three patriarchs, whose Sees are based in Syria: the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the Syrian Orthodox and the Greek-Catholic. (Cf. No. 11).
It is only in those documents and the official statements, observes the Patriarch that “the official voice of the Church in Syria” is to be found. “We do not allow anyone to speak on our behalf or on behalf of Christians in Syria, to distort our statements and to move any kind of accusation” (n. 12).
What, then, in summary, is the position of the Church? The Greek-Melkite Patriarch summarizes it in the first paragraphs of his reflections. Primarily, the conviction that “the greatest danger in Syria today is anarchy, the absence of security, the massive use of weapons by all parties. Violence, unfortunately, is the language that now prevails. “A danger” looms “that affects all citizens, without distinction of race, religion or political colors.” (No. 1)
Christians, Laham notes, are “the weak link. Defenceless, they are the most exposed to exploitation, extortion, kidnapping, torture and even elimination (physical). But women are also part-peacemaker, not armed, one that calls for dialogue, reconciliation, peace and unity among all the sons and daughters of the one country” (no. 2). Even so, the Syrian bishops refuse to consider that there is an Islamic-Christian clash: “The targeting of Christians is not as such, but they are among the victims of the chaos and lack of security” (n. 3).
The Patriarch denounces as “the greatest danger, the interference of foreign elements or Western Arabs. It is an interference which results in weapons, money, media [that provide information] one-way, programmed and subversive “(n. 4). Such interference, in the interpretation of the religious Greek -Melkite leader, benefits no one and “even weakens the voice of moderation that is specifically that of Christians and, more specifically, the voice of the Patriarchs and Bishops, as well as the Assembly of the Catholic hierarchy in Syria.” (No. 6) An voice that, on several occasions, requested reforms, freedom, democracy, fighting corruption, support for development, freedom of speech and the promotion of dialogue. (Cf. No. 6)
“The language of the declarations – the eighth point of the guide of the Patriarch Laham emphasizes – has always been positive, peaceful, and appealed to love and dialogue, and the refusal to resort to arms. (…) In short, the statements are so far from extremism of any kind whatsoever.” “No passage of these statements is an allusion to the persecution of Christians, who, as we have seen, are not targeted, as such. There are even references to concepts such as “Muslims”, “Salafi”, “fundamentalists”, “opponents”, “fear”, “regime” or “Party”.” (No. 7)
Laham counterattacks: “However, we believe that the positions of certain personalities and certain publications and special institutions are harmful to Christians in Syria and expose them to danger, kidnapping, exploitation and even death” (n. 14). “These are the same positions, with their pretext of caring, in an ill-timed way, for Christians, which may increase the radicalism of certain armed factions against Christians. They exacerbate the relations among citizens, especially between Christians and Muslims, as happened in Homs, in Qusayr in Yabrud and Dmeineh Sharquieh etc. …”. (No. 15)
It is more opportune, therefore, to strive for civil peace in Syria, in the nation as a whole. Laham says he is convinced that “despite the abundant bloodshed and the hatred that have occurred with feelings of enmity and rancour, the Syrians, because of their long history, remain experts in conviviality and that will solve this dangerous crisis, unique in their history, helping one another, forgiving and loving and working together for a common future. ” (No. 18)
A great hope, clinging to all the signs of humanity and benevolence still present: “So – writes the Patriarch in No. 19 – we place great hopes in civil society’s initiatives to strengthen the charity and bonds among Syrians that the conflict threatens to destroy. We pray for the success of the Mussalaha (reconciliation) movement in which are active, alongside their brethren in other denominations, delegates from all the Churches.” “Similarly, we believe, we hope and expect that the ministry of reconciliation, especially created by Mussalaha, succeeds in its mission to bring unity and love in the hearts of all. (…) We support, as well, much hope in the creation (within the government that took office in June under the leadership of new Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab – ed.) of the new body, the Ministry of National Reconciliation “(no. 20).
Again back to the exhortation addressed to all, to reject violence and to put an end to the cycle of killings and destruction, especially against civilians, who are Christians or Muslims.
The reflections of the Patriarch restated a belief echoed several times during the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in October 2010: the Islamic world needs the Christian presence near itself. “And we will stay”, says Laham, “as we have done throughout the 1,435 years of shared history” (cf. n. 23).
In conclusion, the Patriarch explains that the positions expressed by the bishops sprout as much from their consciousness of Christians as well as of the citizens of a secular State. The prelate explains that “the prerogatives that one thinks Christians enjoy in Syria, are nothing other than the universal rights of all Syrian citizens, whatever their denomination.” The particular statute that the State recognizes Christians in some areas, the text explains, “is based on the history and confessional system of “millet” of the Ottoman period. The patriarch was then the head of his Church and therefore his point of reference, both religious and secular. The matter of private ecclesiastical law developed during the French Protectorate and under successive Syrian governments up to the one currently in office. So the claim that the statute of Christians is the result of their participation in the regime [current] and will end with it is absolutely false.” (No. 22)
The arguments of Bishop Laham conclude with section 24, which contains appeals to a plurality of interlocutors. Arabs are asked to work for real internal unity, because “the division of the Arab world has always been the main target, internal and external. This division is the reason for the dangers that weigh upon the region and is the cause of the absence of a just and comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This conflict is the foundation and the first cause of most disasters, crises and wars in the Arab world. This conflict – as witnessed by the Holy Father the Pope, many churchmen, papal nuncios, and also the testimonies of Israeli and Jewish politicians – is the primary cause of the exodus of Christians. (…) Peace is in the unity of the Arab world and the salvation of Christians is not assured in the unity of the Arab world, from which derive the circumstances conducive to conviviality and the Islamic-Christian and intra-Islamic dialogue. The greatest danger runs in this field when Islam itself is divided along the fault lines of the Arab world. This is demonstrated, the Sunni-Shiite conflict. This phenomenon is more dangerous than the danger faced by Christians or other faiths in Syria and the region.”
To the “brothers of Europe” Gregory III Laham says in no uncertain terms that to really help the Christians of the Middle East they must take more care about the unity of the Arab world, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and work for peace in the region.
Finally, always turned to the Europeans, almost an anguished cry: “The fate of us all, Christians and Muslim Arabs is the same. Do not separate us from our Arab community environment, nor from our Muslim community environment. Help us to play our role and our mission in the Arab world because we can be present in the Arab world, with it and for it… and to be and in that context as light, salt and yeast. (…) In your analysis, do not make us intruders in our Arab Islamic-Christian world, nor the agents, the dhimmis or the protected, either by you or anyone else. Help us to be Arab Christians in the Church and the Church of Islam. European brothers: do not mask your interests behind your zeal for Christians!”
† Grégorios III Laham
Patriarche grec-melkite catholique
D’Antioche et de tout l’Orient, de Jérusalem et d’Alexandrie