Our visit to Syria has been attacked in the Press for giving a “war criminal” (that is, Bashar al-Assad) a photo opportunity and a tool for propaganda. In fact, it was a pastoral visit to the people of Syria, especially Christians, who have suffered so much at the hands of jihadist extremists.
Their ancient churches have been destroyed, they have been killed in their own homes and driven out of their ancient communities. Anna (not her real name), who still speaks the Aramaic of Jesus as her native language, told us of how the rebels (some belonging to the so- called “moderate opposition”) dragged out her brother and cousin and shot them dead before her eyes for refusing to convert to Islam. They then shot and wounded her, leaving her for dead.
This is why the leadership of all the churches in Syria, including Syrian Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Armenian and Evangelical is unanimous in its opposition to the extremists and in its advocacy of peaceful change in the land.
We also met with mainstream Muslim leaders,including the Grand Mufti of Syria and almost the entire Muslim leadership, Sunni and Shi’a, in the Western part of Aleppo. We were privileged to meet with members of the small Yazidi community as well. There are good prospects for interfaith dialogue on the future of Syria and the role which the different faiths can play in such a future. Such moderate Islamic opinion should be encouraged to bring their view to the the West, instead of being vilified as stooges of the regime.
As we travelled from the South to the North and the West, we were able to meet with community leaders, such as mayors, doctors, social workers and others already engaged in UN, NGO and government supported reconstruction of devastated towns and villages. The restoration of the Monastery of St Thecla in Maaloula is an impressive example of such work. It was good also to have some vigorous dialogue with leaders of the non-violent opposition. Some of these have an even more secular vision of Syria than the governing Ba’ath Party. They too have suffered both at the hands of the regime and from Islamist extremism. They, and many others, told us that whilst their was no love lost between them and Assad, they were emphatically opposed to the violent revolution which extreme Islamism had brought to their country.
We benefited from our meetings with some British journalists, still engaging with Syria as a whole. Their insights were invaluable. One of them told us that whatever may have been the case during the “Arab Spring”,there is now virtually no moderate armed opposition in Syria as many of these groups fight alongside the extremists and are a conduit for arms and funds to them. This coheres with the experience of Christians and also of the regime.
Our meeting with the President was only confirmed when we were in Syria. Britain maintains relations with and encourages visits to countries like the Sudan, Iran and Zimbabwe. Why is Assad being demonised to this extent? In the Middle East the choice is not between angels and monsters but between one kind of monster and another. With all my experience, I cannot say that he is the worst of all. The reasons for such demonisation, in the Middle East and beyond, must be reported and analysed, though that is not my task today.
Our meeting was courteous but frank on both sides. We repeatedly questioned him on indigenously made “barrel bombs” and their indiscriminate use, torture in prisons, attacks on hospitals and other matters. We asked him about plans for a peaceful end to the conflict, greater democracy and a Bill of Rights. We urged on him, the Armed Forces and the armed Opposition the protection of unarmed civilians. We were given responses that were more or less detailed and promised further information. Many of the things he mentioned were later confirmed by others. For example, the Association of Doctors told us that there are over 3000 doctors working in Aleppo, 250 paediatricians, six active public hospitals and many more private ones. The whole of government-controlled Aleppo, in spite of constant rebel shelling, is working normally and is quite unlike pictures of Aleppo shown on our TV screens. Lattakia, similarly, has successfully absorbed large numbers of internal refugees or internally displaced people, as have other cities.
One of the problems with allegations of government abuse is that they often come from unverifiable sources, within rebel held territory or from exiles outside the country. They should be treated with caution. One of the British journalists we talked to described the Syrian Army as a “clean” and professional one. In the course of a brutal war, I am sure there are abuses on all sides, and the government cannot be excused from having committed atrocities. However, the vast majority of Syrian people, especially religious and ethnic minorities, do not want Assad replaced by an Islamist regime.
The example of Iran is relevant here. The Mullahs there came to power with the help of moderate and secular groups. Once they had done that, they got rid of their erstwhile allies and created a theocratic state. The right approach surely is for the regime, the internal and exiled opposition plus any moderate armed opposition which still exists to form a transitional administration which arranges for parliamentary, presidential and local elections under agreed international supervision. It is inconceivable that the regime will agree to such an arrangement without Assad’s participation in some form. If there is to be “regime change”, the mantra of some in the West, surely this is the way to bring it about, rather than by violent overthrow of an open and tolerant social order which exists today.
Our group is very willing to meet with any of the leaders of the exiled opposition or with any one else working for an end to this horrendous conflict and for peaceful constitutional change in the country. We pray that all of Syria’s leadership will have wisdom, love of humanity and the fear of God in their thinking and in their work.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was the 106th Bishop of Rochester, and is now President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD)
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