08/09/2011, 00.00
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The Pope's appeal and the fears of Christians in Syria

by JPG
The nightmare is that Syria will become another Iraq, which explains why many Christian leaders seem to support the regime of President Assad. Benedict XVI's call for dialogue and renunciation of violence by both sides was not reported in Syrian media.
Damascus (AsiaNews) - The appeal pronounced by Benedict XVI on August 7 for an end to violence in Syria, and his very balanced call for shared dialogue (07/08/2011 Pope appeals for reconciliation and peace in Syria and Libya), seems to differ from the positions taken by many Christian leaders of the country. The article from our correspondent in Damascus explains the reasons for this apparent difference in tone.

" We are not afraid of Islam, we are afraid of a chaos taking over similar to that in Iraq," the Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarch and president of the Catholic hierarchy in Syria, Gregorios III, told Vatican Radio, early Sunday afternoon. The patriarch, from his summer residence in Ain-Traz, Lebanon, and not from the official seat of the Patriarchate in Damascus, commented on the appeal made in Castel Gandolfo a few minutes before by Pope Benedict XVI, an appeal known to AsiaNews readers, but totally ignored by Syrian media, as was already the case for the earlier appeal of the pontiff, on May 15 last. Likewise, a week before, after the bloody army operation in the Syrian city of Hama, the Patriarch had expressed to the German program of Vatican Radio, his condolences for "the dead on both sides, that of the demonstrators and the army. "

The patriarch probably would not have spoken in a such a way to Syrian media, because the reference to a possible future chaos implies the hypothesis of an "after Assad," and the mourning for the dead among the protesters would not be acceptable where these protesters are considered to be " terrorists ". So far, all the heads of Christian Churches in Syria have united in support of President Assad, with statements and in writing.
Gregorios III has also written letters to several American and European heads of state to ask them not to help in the dispute (the letters are open-letters, being published on the website of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Patriarchate, in Arabic, English and French).

The Syrian Orthodox Patriarch, Ignatius Zakka I, also declared himself in favor of the president. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch (also based in Damascus), Ignatius IV, has remained silent, but has left his auxiliary bishops free to speak out, one of which, after having presided over an "ecumenical prayer" for civil peace in Syria , which ended in a political meeting in favor of the president, expelled the American ambassador, Robert Ford, from the patriarchal cathedral in Syria, who is guilty, according to the Archbishop, of expressing his solidarity with the besieged of Hama.

On Syrian television, there are frequent and fervent interventions from bishops and priests, Orthodox and Catholic, in favor of the president. The most vociferous bishops in this sense are both from Aleppo: the Melkite Greek-Catholic Metropolitan Jean-Clément Jeanbart and the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim.

A few weeks ago, one of the most respected priests of Damascus, Don Elias Zehlaoui, a Melkite Greek- Catholic, addressed an open letter to French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, to protest statements by the head of the Quai d'Orsay on the loss of legitimacy of the Syrian President. For its part, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, coordinator of the major (and not very many) Protestant communities in Syria, in issued a statement Damascus condemning the "terrorist acts" committed against the army and security forces . Some prelates, however, have remained cautiously silent, especially the Latin Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, Bishop Giuseppe Nazzaro, Italian Franciscan.

The fear expressed by Gregorios III is that of all the Syrian Christians: they are afraid a regime change would mean losing the security enjoyed by their minority for decades in Syria, a country, as the Apostolic Nuncio in Damascus, Archbishop Mario Zenari has repeatedly recognized, "exemplary in terms of harmony between different religious confessions, for mutual respect between the Muslim majority and Christian minority." It is a reality that everyone can notice in the country.

There have also been, since he became head of state ten years ago, very cordial personal relations between the Syrian president and several Christian leaders, especially Gregorios III. It is often the case that, when a Head of State or Government from Europe is on an official visit to Syria, the Syrian president will take them to the Damascus Melkite Greek-Catholic cathedral for a visit, the last was the Socialist leader of the Spanish Government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, last year.

For several years, by the will of the president, the Catholic Churches (greek-Melkite, Syrian, Armenian, Maronite, Chaldean and Latin) have enjoyed "personal statutes", replacing the old personal statutes for all Christians of the country, in force since the French Mandate over Syria before independence. The official text of the document consists mainly of textual excerpts from the "Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches" promulgated by Blessed John Paul II in 1990. There was an attempt to replace it, in part, with regards marriage and this in conformity with Islamic law, but a joint request to the President by the three patriarchs (greek-orthodox, Melkite Greek- Catholic Syro-Orthodox) sufficed to archive the initiative.

But now, even those bishops to date closest to the president, in private, are begining to question the shedding of blood, the diplomatic isolation of the country (the Italian ambassador was the first to be called, but now, Arab ambassadors, such as those in Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are even leaving Damascus), the socio-economic crisis with a dramatic increase in unemployment, the paralysis of the tourism sector, etc..

Ordinary Christian citizens fear the future, but also the thirst for real information, essential in making important decisions. Everyone knows that the media in the country, and television first of all, does not report the truth. They also know that the "information" available on the Internet is not always reliable, with many uncontrollable sources, a plethora of videos that show nothing but are often tools of manipulation (as in state television), with obviously inflated numbers of demonstrators, etc.. Although the information given by the press and television in other countries are often just as unreliable, because the Syrian regime, since last March, expelled all foreign journalists, and therefore they can verify nothing. Unfortunately, they all also know that the current situation may last for quite a long time, with more episodes of violence, casualties and suffering, before, as the Pope hoped in his appeal, a "peaceful coexistence” can be restored that will “respond adequately to the legitimate aspirations of citizens. "

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