Five years of war, which included the use of chemical weapons, have produced death and destruction. The Catholic Church continues to help both the Christian and Muslim communities. We spoke with Msgr. Antoine Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo.
What is the situation like for Christians in Syria today?
Some fanatics would like to expel Christians from the entire Middle East region. That is what happened in Iraq, which has become a country without Christians. But these extremists are not part of the Syrian social structure. In fact, many Muslims living here themselves acknowledge that the presence of Christians is an integral part of the country. At the same time many, and in particular young people, are attracted to countries where there are job opportunities, food and health care services.
The situation is dramatic in Syria, where people experience poverty, lack of water, electricity, and labour opportunities. We, as representatives of the Catholic Church, have one primary goal: giving Christian communities a future, in order to prevent them from being tempted by the idea of leaving the country to create their future somewhere else. We work to strengthen the Christian communities in the country and their vocation as Eastern Christians, who historically have experienced troubled times for different reasons related to geopolitics, to the West and Islam; but in difficult times, we have always managed to move forward by making many sacrifices.
What is behind violence in Syria?
There are international interests between the major powers, as well as regional ones between Sunnis and Shiites for the control of the area, and for the leadership in the Arab and Muslim world.
The problem with Islam today is accepting modernity, understood as freedom of conscience, openness to dialogue, acceptance of religious differences; all these elements are seen as a threat by Islamic fanatics. We, the Christians of the Middle East, respect the other religious beliefs, and we think that the Muslim world needs dialogue, not arms trade, or humiliation that produce hatred and violence.
How can the crisis be overcome politically?
As a bishop, I try not to talk about complex political problems. However, while according to the Western media, the changing of the president would be the solution to the crisis, I think that the problem is much more complex. The cultural and political situation of the area should be taken into consideration.
In Syria there is a Sunni majority, 80 percent, and various minorities such as that of the Alawites. President Bashar Al Assad is an Alawite. It is not unfrequent to find representatives of minorities that hold power in the Arab and Muslim world, because democracy does not exist in these countries and minority communities are often supportive of each other. The Gulf States are predominantly Sunni Islam and have a tribal structure. Even the Baath Party in Syria, which refers to itself as a secular party, is tribally structured. This reality cannot be ignored, and this must be said in no uncertain terms.
Syria is a multi-confessional State and people should not be afraid to acknowledge this matter. There is no problem if a president is Sunni – there are many talented Sunnis such as the Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and the Ambassador to the United Nations Al-Ja’-afari – as long as Syrians are not forced to accept solutions imposed by foreign powers. That would mean the end of the country.
The possible division of the territory, which has also been hypothesized on ethnic and religious grounds?
I completely disagree with the division hypothesis. Syria has all the characteristics to be a united country, with its own government, where different people are able to live together. Foreign powers are those which are interested in dividing the country; in this way each of them could share the control of the different regions of a divided Syria. Historically, the Syrian people have always wished to remain united. Russians and Americans should try to find a peaceful solution.
The Syrian President Assad has accused Europe of arming several groups fighting in Syria.
As an observer, I do not think that all the groups fighting in Syria are self-organized and self-financed. Strategies, funding, training are all supported by outside forces. I am even more convinced that each of these groups does the business of external actors.
What kind of dialogue is possible with Islam, in this situation?
A dialogue based on respect, without superior tones and with no intention of imposing anything on others. These are ‘colonial’ attitudes, which Muslims remember well and which the West still does not seem to be aware of. Pope Francis has very wisely said that there are no violent religions but there are violent people in all religions. The Arab-Muslim world deeply appreciated this attitude of respect.
As a Church, our mission is to promote understanding. People here must become Syrian citizens together, Christians and Muslims. We are human beings, we must work together for the respect of human dignity. We should never get tired of building bridges and promoting dialogue with Muslims. Personal contacts are very important in the Islamic world.
You are Caritas Syria President. What projects is Caritas currently focusing on ?
Caritas Syria has 200 members of staff and volunteers, helping people get access to food, shelter, health and education. Caritas staff members are currently working in six areas. (Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, the south, the Coast and the Jazira). The Caritas Syria programs operate in order to meet six different demands: food is the first, health is the second. Caritas supplies medicines, pays hospitalizations and surgeries. Education is the third priority: we provide 4000 students with scholarships, for middle school, high school and college.
Providing shelter and adequate accommodation for those, mainly the elderly, who can no longer afford to pay the rent is the fourth priority of Caritas Syria. Psycho-social help for children and young people suffering post-traumatic stress disorders is our fifth goal, while the improvement of women’s condition is the sixth. Caritas Syria has also established an Emergency Fund. Needless to say that there is no discrimination of race or religion, all people are helped according to their needs. (C.C.)