A report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights blames the Syrian regime for 61 per cent of attacks on churches. Between March 2011 and September 2019, 124 places of worship were hit. For Bishop Audo, the issue is "complicated and delicate", one that requires "extreme care". Both sides are exploiting the issues.
Aleppo (AsiaNews) – The propaganda war in Syria between the Syrian government and rebel groups is one of the conflict’s many battlefronts, each side with its own regional and international patrons.
For Mgr Antoine Audo, Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, this is a "complicated and delicate" issue, one that requires "extreme care", above all a cautious evaluation of the sources, as well as the groups and factions that provide the news.
The latest episode in the battle concerns a report by a Syrian NGO that suggests that Syria’s regular forces are responsible for most attacks against churches and other Christian places of worship.
For Bishop Audo, who is a former president of Caritas Syria, "it is difficult to give an objective answer” when faced with such information. “When armed groups lose ground, this kind of propaganda gets cranked up again." Hence, we must be "very careful of this" because some belligerents "have benefitted from the support of international media from the start of the conflict.”
The latest controversy is based on a recent report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) titled Targeting Christian Places of Worship in Syria is a Threat to World Heritage. The document claims that Syrian forces are responsible for 61 per cent of attacks against churches and monasteries, thus undermining the image of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government as defenders of minorities, especially Christians.
“The Syrian regime has always invoked good slogans, but on the ground, it has done the opposite,” says SNHR chairman Fadel Abdul Ghany, cited in the report. “While the regime claims that it has not committed any violations, and that it is keen on protecting the Syrian state and the rights of minorities, it has carried out qualitative operations in suppressing and terrorizing all those who sought political change and reform, regardless of religion or race.”
Between March 2011 and September 2019, 124 churches were attacked by the main parties to the conflict. According to the report, at least 75 of such attacks can be blamed on the Syrian regime, another 10 on the Islamic State group, and two on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Another 33 violent incidents can be attributed to other armed opposition factions and four to unidentified groups.
The report goes on to say that 11 churches were used for military or administrative purposes by the various forces, at least six by the Syrian government or militia linked to it.
Some people “use this information to say that the government exploits the Christian community as a defensive tool," noted Mgr Audo. However, “most bishops, priests and believers see the situation as more complex.” Indeed, the government sometimes "does politically exploit religion, but the picture is more intricate". It is undeniable that anti-Assad propaganda also uses it, when Christianity comes into the picture.
Meanwhile, on the ground things are unclear. Some reports indicate possible changes before Christmas. “The Aleppo-Homs highway, which is now held by armed groups, could be freed,” the prelate said. “It is expected that the Aleppo airport will also reopen, but it is unclear whether this will happen or not or if there is an international deal to that effect. We don't know, but we hope."
For now, "the economic situation remains very difficult. Without stability and security, people cannot resume [regular] economic, industrial and commercial activities."