Beirut (AsiaNews) - Gregorios III Laham, Greek-Melkite Catholics patriarch of Antioch, described the destruction of Ma'aloula churches as "a war crime".
On Sunday, he was able to visit the historic Christian village, after the Syrian army retook it from the Islamist al-Nusra Front.
"It is the mystery of iniquity that one sees at work," he said, unable to find words strong enough to translate the feelings at the sight of desolation before him.
"It is the devastation of the Temple, the mystery of iniquity," he said in a telephone interview from Beirut, the night of his visit.
The Greek-Catholic patriarch travelled to the village with Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Youhanna Yazigi and representatives of the Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Patriarchates, accompanied by some journalists and security officers.
A little later, he also paid a visit to the Syrian head of state, who was also visiting the village.
"An apocalyptic spectacle presented itself. Other churches have been destroyed in Syria, but I have never seen anything like this. I cried and I sought in vain a moment of solitude to pray. I am heartbroken," the prelate said again.
"Ma'aloula's four historic churches were hit. Our parish church, dedicated to Saint George, is riddled with bullets. The convent's dome was damaged in two places. The walls were ripped open by cannon fire. Some parts of the convent is in danger of collapsing and must be rebuilt. The icons are scattered on the floor, dirty, or stolen. It is currently completely uninhabitable."
"In the Convent of Saints Sarkis and Bakhos (pictured), the historic pagan altar, converted into a Christian altar, the only one of this kind, is broken in two."
The same spectacle of devastation can be seen in the Greek-Orthodox churches of St Elijah and St Tecla.
In Gregorios III's opinion, Ma'aloula's devastation is "an organised crime," a "war crime."
The London Charter (1946) defines war crimes as "plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity".
"There is no military justification for the vandalism," the patriarch said. "There is an impression that it was orchestrated."
"Why did they turn our churches into defensive positions?" he wondered, as he tried to understand all these destructions.
With bitterness, Gregorios III accuses the Western world of being blind about the truth of the war in Syria.
In his view, this is absolutely not a "Syrian War" or a "civil war." Of course, the conflict partly involves Muslims fighting among themselves, but it is not a war between Islam and Christianity. It is an "organised crime."
In terms of security, Ma'aloula residents can now think about returning, the patriarch said, despite the uncertainty surrounding the situation of utilities (electricity, water, telephones).
Some young people, he added, are returning to inspect the homes and study the possibility of coming back.
However, Gregorios III draws attention to the difficulties that there will be "in repairing the social bond" between Ma'aloula Christians and Muslims.
Some Muslim families in the village sided with Islamist insurgents and the rebuilding of trust will be a problem. Many young people do not want a superficial reconciliation, and "hypocritical hugs."
The Church has a duty to prevent that the entire Muslim population be assimilated with what some have done. Christians, he believes, should not live in a ghetto.
For him, this is the real conspiracy. It aims at tearing apart the social fabric of Syrian society, which never had discord between Muslims and Christians.
Some behaviours, in his eyes, have been barbarous and can only be explained by a desire to destroy "deep" Syria.
In support of his views, he mentioned the atrocious death, in front of witnesses, of a baker in Adra, a small town near Damascus. The unfortunate man was thrown alive along with his children into the bakery oven in which he had freshly baked bread for the Islamist fighters.
Gregorios III slams the "criminal indifference with which the Western world, under the false pretext of defending democracy, continues to watch this spectacle of destruction."
Noting that there still is no news about six abducted Ma'aloula residents, or the Greek-Orthodox and Syriac Orthodox bishops of Aleppo, who have been missing for more than a year, he ended saying, "We must absolutely prevent the virus of hatred from spreading".