Syrian Archbishop of Aleppo appeals for dialogue, peace

2012-08-16 Vatican Radio

(Vatican Radio) The Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo says fighting was continuing Thursday in several districts of Syria’s biggest commercial city. Metropolitan Archbishop Jean Clement Jeanbart says the areas under siege in the northern city are mostly in the outskirts which were built up over recent decades as rural families transferred to the urban center for jobs.

He tells Tracey McClure that the communities under attack are not necessarily sympathisers with the Assad regime but “some of them are sympathising but the problem is that many fighters came from outside and settled in the midst of them. Some of (the fighters) are from these parts but many, many others came from outside Aleppo and perhaps far from Aleppo – from the north, the Turkish borders.”

Asked if Syria has become the site of a proxy war fought by outside powers, Archbishop Jeanbart expresses concern that there are “organizations to find fighters, jihadists, people who want to fight for God and the Islamic cause and that’s why we have fundamentalists coming from Libya, from Jordan, from Egypt, from several other countries, from Afghanistan, even from Turkey. There are plenty of people coming from all these parts of the world. Of course there are (also) fighters from the city, from (Syria)…the Free Syrian Army.”

The Metropolitan Archbishop says for the most part, the Christian community of Aleppo has “thank God, been preserved until now. Our people are not militarized and we have forbidden and asked our people not to take up arms…we made it clear to everybody that we are not part of this fighting.”

Archbishop Jeanbart affirms that Christians have lived alongside Muslims in Syria for thousands of years. “We remind everybody that we’ve been living with Muslims since hundreds of years…and we have always been good with them and they (have been) good with us.”

But, he implies that foreign fighters not familiar with the history of friendly relations between Christians and Muslims in Syria are suspicious of these ties. “They think (this) is not good and they are doing mistakes, yes, in this regard. They may be killing sometime. But thank God, we must say that we have not many casualties.”

Some Christians, he admits, have been threatened with kidnapping or with having their homes or property confiscated. He is quick to add that so far, no churches have been targeted in such threats. “We can say our people are safe and we hope it can continue to be like that.”

The Aleppo Archbishop makes an appeal to the international community to step up efforts in dialogue, to find a peaceful settlement to the conflict.

“We’d like to see European countries, the West, do something in this regard,” he says, “to try not to send arms and (to) push people to fight but to send encouragement to sit down at a table and to talk and to find a solution by dialogue. That’s what the Holy Father has called (for) several times and we are happy and yes, proud to know that our Pope Benedictus has called for that and this is very important.”

Archbishop Jeanbart insists “the Western countries must understand that (arms are) not the way to get what (they) want.” Dialogue, he maintains, is the only way to end “this fratricide war where people die for nothing (except) realizing some objectives I do not understand.”

Archbishop Jeanbart brushes off any implication that the neutrality of Syria’s Christians can be seen as indication of their support of the Assad regime. He suggests that the same neutrality could be seen as supportive of the opposition. “we do not take up arms neither for the one nor for the other.”

“We…as communities, as churches, we do not want that and we ask our people not to go ahead in this way.” He says he and other church leaders prefer to trust in “the providence of the Lord” and “in dialogue and understanding with everyone that we do not want to hurt anyone and we do not want anyone to hurt us. We do not get into political discussions or political choices.”

Referring to the concern of the Middle East’s bishops about the exodus of Christians from the region, the Aleppo Archbishop describes migration as “our biggest problem,” and one of his own greatest worries. “many people want to leave – mostly the youth – and this is a big preoccupation for us.”

He indicates that many Christians with the financial resources to do so, have left for neighbouring countries like Lebanon to wait out the crisis. But his real concern is for others who have left for more distant places like Canada, the U.S. or Europe . He says he tries to tell those who remain in Syria “it is not the moment to decide to go away… try to stay these few months and I’m sure that things will go well.”

Christians have been in Syria for two thousand years, he reminds them. “We have the duty but also the chance (luck) to live in this country. We mustn’t lose this chance and lose this possibility to be full citizens in this country and to bear witness to the Lord in this country where Christians (took) their first steps in the world.”

Speaking of his hope that the security situation will permit him to go to Beirut for Pope Benedict’s September visit to Lebanon, Archbishop Jeanbart says he hopes the Holy Father will make “a very strong call to the world, the West, to see the human cost (of this conflict)” and to invigorate efforts at dialogue to bring the violence to a swift end.

Listen to Tracey McClure's full-length interview with Archbishop Jeanbart: