Gregorios III Laham appeals to Europe for compromise in Syria
by Fady Noun
The Melkite patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem, is concerned that Syria has been caught up in a power game between the United States and Russia. He calls on Europe, which has a Mediterranean vocation, to take the initiative to prevent a civil war.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – AsiaNews has interviewed Gregorios III Laham, Catholic Melkite patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem for his views on the Syrian crisis and its possible developments for the country’s Christian communities.
The spectre of civil war is upon Syria. How can the country escape such a curse; how can it avoid a downward spiral into hell? Some believe the regime to be cynical, cruel and unchangeable and that it must be swept away. They do not believe it can change from within, by the countervailing power of a new military force, or economic and diplomatic pressures or sanctions. Others, outside and inside Syria, including some opposition and religious leaders, have not lost hope that change can come from within, this despite all the difficulties that a single party regime entails. As a man of peace, Patriarch Gregorios III will not give up. For months, he has called on Arab leaders to listen to their peoples.
His appeals have been non-stop, especially in relation to the nations that come under his patriarchal authority, namely Egypt and Syria. In the latter, which is also his homeland, he believes that change is still possible, especially if Europe intervenes. He does not expect much from the United States but Europe has a Mediterranean vocation and can do a lot to promote a compromise that might spare Syria the horrors of blind violence and civil war. The patriarch, who calls on all the parties in and outside of Syria to engage in dialogue, sees his country as the hostage of a power game between the United States and Russia.
The Greek Catholic patriarch received us at his residence in Raboué ahead of the meeting of the synod of his Church (6-8 February 2012), which must also fill three vacant Episcopal sees, two in Syria.
What does Gregorios III actually think about what is happening in his country? Is it a plot, as the regime claims, or a revolution?
Whilst I do not want to criticise Syria, I want to say that I do not like the term ‘plot’. For me it is a sign of weakness. It is like saying that we only have enemies around us. Can we speak of revolution? What is happening here is not limited to Syria. Although I do not think it is a real revolution, I think Arab countries have entered a period of revolution. Usually, a revolution is planned. I would describe what is happening as the consequence of pent-up frustrations. But politics got involved and everything was distorted.
Whilst not trying to defend blindly the regime, you appear surprised that an attempt is being made to drag the Church in Syria into the campaign to undermine the system. You blame Europe of pushing for violence rather than a political compromise . . .
I spoke to the Times a few days ago. I said, Don’t think about changing the regime but help the regime change. I believe this is the right way to see things. The Church is there for this and has done a lot.
Assad also wants change but is it realistic to ask the Ba‘ath party to change?
Of course! Don’t look at the past. The past is the past. Let us learn from the war in Lebanon. Fifteen years of war, why? It is a lesson for all of us. Let us look at things directly. We must look beyond Syria, at the big arsenals. Is it reasonable to issue a call to arms? The Church cannot do it anyway. Don’t ask us to play a role that isn’t ours! I believe that after 11 months of this experience [of widespread unrest], Syria is not the same. I think there will be fundamental changes. And I think President Bashar al-Assad wants them too.
Those involved in Syria’s crisis appear to be losing control.
The impression is that the situation is no longer in Syria’s hands. The impression is that a power game between the United States and Russia is underway, that we are in a phase of political subordination. Everything is centred on the Security Council and the Russian veto.
Do you fear for Syria’s Christians?
Syria has always had the lowest emigration rate in the Arab world. That is significant. It is due to fact that the regime is secular. That is the future. Of course, some have left out of fear but there is no exodus. All I can say is that Christians should not be afraid. As a Christian, I don’t feel I am a target of any group, not even Salafists. In Egypt, the situation is different. I cannot say there will never be any extremist act, but as Athenagoras said, ‘I have no fear. I’m disarmed.’
We must look at issue in social terms. We must speak as Syrian citizens, not as Christians. The problem is not religious even though some have included it in their analysis. That is false. I told European parliamentarians who were in Lebanon for a conference on Eastern Christians in Kaslik in November 2011, that they should not fear for Christians’ future but for that of the world. For us, it is not the time to ask for our rights, but to rediscover our mission in an Arab world that is being reborn. Preaching peace, legality and justice is our way to accompany events, both at home and abroad.
The Church is criticised for staying in a gray area, of not speaking out against serious human rights violations.
That is not true. I have called for an end to the violence in each statement. I am not a politician nor a security agent or a journalist. I cannot go into the details I don’t have the means or the will to do that. The Church cannot provide solutions but only give directions. It also has to go through unofficial channels.
You have complained about media “exaggerations” and disinformation”.
This is a modern war, and the media have become “despotic” and play a “destructive” role.
What about the number of dead reported in the media?
I don’t have an answer. I think both sides are spreading false news. I think Europe is doing the same. It is all politicised and in this sense, it is a plot. I think that the name of the game is, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. I don’t understand how Europe, which rebuilt itself after a world war that killed 50 million people, could back one side against the other when it has the means to stop the war.
But is the Syrian president willing to acknowledge as legitimate interlocutors those who are fighting him? Didn’t the Arab League try to help him by sending observers to Syria? Didn’t it ask the Syrian leader to pull its tanks back from the cities? Hasn’t he clearly chosen to crack down? Does Gregorios III believe that Europe and Russia can convince him to show flexibility and openness?
Let me go back to what I said. I am not a politician. In politics, nothing is certain. When blood is spilled, it is always my brother’s blood. Besides, whilst people are worked up about Syria, they forget Israel and the Palestinian cause. I wrote to all European leaders on 2 April 2011, calling on them to do something to find a solution to the Palestinian conflict because once this conflict is solved, half of the problems in the Arab world will also be solved. Now, after 63 years of crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still lacks a solution. Why is it that no country has recognised a Palestinian state in September at the United Nations? It is capitulation. It is unworthy.