A shattered country. A population in poverty. Arms to warring factions. A difficult dialogue. Notwithstanding, the Church is committed to peace. We met Monsignor Antoine Audo, bishop of Aleppo and president of Caritas Syria.
Riots began two years ago in Daraa, a town in southern Syria near the Jordanian border. They quickly spread to the whole country. So far, the conflict has claimed more than 70,000 lives and forced about two and a half million people to leave their homes. Many have taken shelter in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, only controls part of the country but he still has the support of the army, with around 50,000 well-trained and well-armed soldiers. Russia, Iran, and Iraq back the government. On the other side, an increasingly split opposition has yet to find an authoritative leader around which to gather the 100 or so armed groups fighting against Assad. London and Paris back the rebels, with military support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries. The Arab League has officially recognised the opposition Syrian National Coalition as its partner for dialogue. The same political body approved by a large majority a resolution giving its member states the right to arm the rebels.
The causes of the conflict
Monsignor Audo, 62, is the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo. He was appointed to this post in 1992; he is also the president of Caritas Syria. Of late, he has been forced to leave his diocese. “I have been advised not to come back – he says – despite my strong desire to be with my people. I am in Damascus, but I keep in touch with my vicar, priests, friends, and relatives. The situation is increasingly painful.” Monsignor Audo is a Jesuit, like Pope Francis. According to him, the new pontiff is a source of hope also for the future of Syria and of Christians in the Middle East. He lists the different elements of the Syrian crisis, avoiding one-sided explanations. “First the confessional element. The Sunni majority wants to take power, now in the hands of the Alawite minority. This struggle is linked to a broader regional dispute, marked by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This confrontation also involves Iraq and Lebanon, but the media don’t talk enough about it.” According to the bishop, “the political problem” follows. “A military regime with a single party in power for 50 years – as in other countries – under Russian influence.” The third point deals with the economy. “Many young people have attended university but now they only see unemployment and corruption around them.”
The church’s commitment
According to the bishop, violence has fuelled fear and sunk the economy. “Syrians are rapidly slipping into an unprecedented state of widespread poverty; people are hungry.” Last year, the Catholic bishops of Syria launched an appeal to all Syrians, to encourage “within the framework of national unity” a “national dialogue, indispensable for any reform,” the only way “to escape the cycle of violence and repression.” The goal, the bishops said, was “to build a new multi-party democratic Syria.” Faced with a worrying reality, the Catholic Church came to the people’s assistance. “We are trying to meet families’ needs: food, medicines, and health care. Many families don’t have access to these in the hardest days of the conflict. On this issue, we also cooperate with the Red Crescent, trying to cover most of the country without overlapping.”
In the last two years, many Christians have left Syria. Only in Aleppo, according to some sources, 30,000 of the 160,000 Christians have fled. Nevertheless, Christians “don’t fear their fellow citizens,” the bishop says. On the other hand, they are afraid of being forced to leave the country, like many Iraqis in recent years. “It would be – the bishop underlined – a great loss for Syria, for the universal church, and for everybody else. Their history and the centuries-long coexistence of Muslims and Arab Christians in the region gave rise to a common culture and dialogue.” According to Monsignor Audo “Christians, like most Syrians, want peace and national reconciliation.” All groups must be included in this reconciliation and world powers must contribute. “Syria – the bishop says – can find peace only if the international community helps: it must apply pressure to bring the factions to the negotiating table.”