Rome (AsiaNews) - "The Mission of Christian Syrians is to proclaim and bear witness to a new way of life among their Sunni, Shia and Druze brothers. This is the task God has entrusted to us. This hope of reconciliation gives meaning to our presence in Syria devastated by war," said Mgr Gregorios III Laham, patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem of the Melkites, as he spoke about Pope Francis' Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.
On 30 November, the prelate chaired a meeting titled 'Syria today, the voice of an eyewitness to refute lies and report on facts that really happened', held in Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria.
Gregorios noted that "if Christians tried to preserve their identity without being open to the world in which they live, they would close themselves in a ghetto that could only breed isolation and suspicion. Through their presence in Syria, Christians bear witness to the Gospel in their daily life, and this is our 'mission' among the Muslims."
For the prelate, "the Joy of the Gospel" is making the followers of Islam understand the centrality of God in their lives and press them to accept freedom of "consciousness and a new way of thinking about man, not through words, but with unity, witness and communion in suffering. "
An example are the three young martyrs of Malooula - Mikhael Taalab, Antoun Taalab and Sarkis el-Zakhm - killed out of hatred for their faith. For them, the Patriarch has asked the Vatican to start the cause of beatification.
Gregorios III said that the Catholic Church has clearly and freely "stated its position on Syria", which is something that Muslims appreciate, including many extremists.
An example of the role Christians play in a region torn by more than two years of war, the patriarch relayed the story of a Christian general, who escaped death because of the Church's non-violence and the call for reconciliation made by the pope and the country's bishops.
"The officer," the prelate said, "damaged his car on a reconnoitring mission. Unfortunately his trusted mechanic, a Sunni Muslim, lived in a very dangerous area with a strong presence of anti-regime rebels. Still, he decided to take his car in for repair. In the workshop, in civilian clothes, he was received by the mechanic, who also invited a neighbour, a radical Islamic Salafist. When the latter came, he asked: 'Who is he? The Sunni Muslim gave away the officer's identity, rousing the fanatic's wrath, who told his friend to report him to the rebels. When the mechanic pointed out that 'he is a Christian,' the Islamist was taken aback and said, 'I have heard Christians making statements in favour of peace, so I won't do anything."
In the conference on 30 November, Gregorios III presented the conflict's figures, calling on the West to be united, because "with a single voice, it will be easier to put pressure on the Gulf nations that continue to arm Islamic rebels."
"A diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict will be the key to resolving the crisis in the Middle East," he added. "Only peace and stability can help moderate Muslims curb extremist movements, which exploit instability to impose their vision".
In Syria there are 9 million displaced people living in poverty. More than 1.2 million Syrians have fled to Lebanon, including about 42,000 Christians. They are part of the more than 450,000 Catholics and Orthodox who lost everything and are living abroad. Still, the Muslim community has comparatively suffered more with casualty figures still hard to come by.
Christians (less than 10 per cent of the population) have already had 1,200 people dead, including soldiers, civilians, priests and nuns.
Bombs have destroyed or damaged at least 60 churches, whilst some 40 parishes are left without a congregation. Even in Gregorios III's hometown of Daraya, there are no more Christians; everyone is gone.
Nevertheless, the Syrian Church should not fear the math of war. For the patriarch. "A small flock has a task to carry out on behalf of the whole of Christendom. In spite of this tragedy, this is our hope. Everyone is suffering, and we Christians should not be afraid of the place where God sent us. "