Three experts on the Middle East explain the reason behind this ecclesiastical position and whether it clashes with the ideas of Pope Francis.
In the past few days, Pope Francis and the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, spoke on the phone about Syria, continuing on the path of their common commitment to peace.
After the Regina Coeli of April 15, the Pope also launched a new call “to agree on shared action for peace in Syria and other regions of the world,” appealing “to all political leaders, so that justice and peace prevail.”
Compared to the balance of Bergoglio, the Church in Syria spoke about the conflict with very harsh words and positions.
Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio in Syria, spoke about the threat of the bombings and lamented the failure of international organizations, in particular the UN Security Council. He called for the scourge of the population’s flight to end.
The cardinal strongly urged the international community to examine who is responsible for the violence and, in particular, addressed the UN Security Council. He asked it to reveal the truth about the use of chemical weapons against the population.
“It would not be the first time,” he claimed. “I impute the responsibility” of what cannot be stopped “to the failure of the United Nations.” Too many “vetoes,” too many “impasses” are preventing them from punishing “abominable crimes” that are taking place (Vatican News, April 15).
The condemnation of the bombings
Many representatives of the Church in Syria have condemned the bombings coordinated by the United States: “They use lies to prey on our country.”
Father Ibrahim launched a desperate appeal in the Swiss newspaper Il Giornale del Popolo (April 15): “It will not end soon. Pray for us.”
The nuns of Damascus stood up in protest against the rebels, whom they held responsible for the bombings in the capital and in particular on church buildings (Aleteia, 6 March 2018).
Father Munir Hanashy, a parish priest in Damascus and director of the Salesian schools in the Syrian capital, contacted Il Sussidiario (March 1) by telephone after hours of bombing in the Syrian capital by the “rebels.” He said, “It’s time to admit that there are two sides to the picture painted by Obama and his successor Trump.” In Damascus, “a government that looks out for its citizens” has been under attack for years (…) and is trying “to defend us.”
Aleteia asked three experts on the Middle East, and in particular on the Syrian question, about how to interpret the position of the Syrian Church, which is 1) condemnation of the bombings; 2) no intervention against Assad; 3) harsh words against the rebels.
The symphony between powers
Riccardo Cristiano, founder of the association “Journalist Friends of Father Dall’Oglio” was assigned for a long time to the Middle East and later served as coordinator of religious programming on Radio Rai. He suggested that the position of the Syrian Church is explained with the so-called “symphony between powers.”
“From the time when the Ottomans created a mechanism for the protection of religious minorities, many Christian hierarchies adopted the principle of the symphony between powers: that is, maintain a good relationship between political and religious power in order to be protected by the former. More or less all of the Eastern Christian Churches in the East have believed in this principle at some time. What is happening in Syria today, is the same thing that happened in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. Fear and protection go hand-in-hand. Hence the ‘understanding’ with the current regime in power.”
“It is no coincidence,” continued Cristiano, “that all these patriarchs did not say a word about the Christian martyrs murdered by Assad and Hezbollah through the streets of Beirut after the assassination of Hariri.”
He continued, “Those Christians were prestigious intellectuals, great editors, leaders of the Communist past, etc., but they were not from a culture of the ‘harmony between powers.’ Hence the silence at their martyrdom.”
This explains, says the analyst, the “difficulty” in the Middle Eastern Church to categorize groups such as Hezbollah or the Pasdaran as “terrorists.”
“The pope, on the other hand, continues to speak clearly, emphasizing that you cannot build peace if you don’t end the logic of extermination that currently characterizes Syria, which has ended up in the hands of what I call ‘opposite extremisms,'” said the expert on Middle East issues.
Assad is but one of these “extremisms.” “He is a general from a fascist culture who presents himself as a layman, at the head of a militarist regime that has nothing of pan-Arabism. Pan-Arabis can be considered secular, but Assad has nothing to do with pan-Arabism because he acts with the same fundamentalism as the Wahhabis.” He merely designed a pact with the “Christian hierarchies” based on mutual “non-hostility.”
Absence of evidence
For Father Bernardo Cervellera, director of Asianews, a website that specializes in information about the Middle East, “The attitude of many patriarchs and bishops is dictated by two elements.”
First: “There is no evidence, other than a video, about the chemical weapons, but France, Britain, and the United States have carried out a missile bombing on suspected chemical weapons deposits. Given that in the past both the regime and the rebels and the fundamentalists have used these weapons, it would be good to make sure of who used it, with well-founded evidence, before acting.”
Cervellera emphasized, “This attack is taking place at a time when the government is beating opposition groups and fundamentalists, and moving toward peace with the diplomatic and military support of Russia, Iran, Turkey. When the patriarchs express themselves in a critical way, they do so because it seems like the Western powers are trying at all costs to get back into the Syrian crisis, which they are now out of.”
Danger of an Islamic government
The second element of concern for the Syrian Church, observes the director of Asianews, is that “while Russia, Turkey, and Iran, support Assad’s secular government, which allows minorities a certain serenity, the USA and its allies have always preferred the anti-Assad fundamentalists and would like to see a new government without Assad — an Islamic government. Christians obviously prefer a secular government.”
So the position of the Christian Church, summarized Cervellera, is “simply realistic.”
In line with the Church in Syria, according to the journalist, “There is also Pope Francis. He said during the Regina Coeli that international instruments are needed to solve the issues, not bombs. So Bergoglio, in my opinion, has followed the path of the apostolic nuncio in Syria, who expressed with sadness that the war in Syria is a failure for the UN.”
For Fulvio Scaglione, former vice-director of Famiglia Cristiana, and a writer and author of several books on the crisis in the Middle East, the attitude of the Church and of Christians in Syria is “very simple; it could even be called ‘primitive.'”
Given a choice between Assad’s authoritarian regime and an irruption of armed Islamic fundamentalism, “They prefer Assad’s authoritarianism. Before the civil war, 18 religious confessions coexisted in Syria and it was the most secular state in the Middle East. The Christians of Syria are not choosing between two ideal solutions, but are opting for the ‘lesser evil.'”
The precedent of Iraq
Scaglione affirmed that Syria’s Christians “have before their eyes the example of Iraq: a war on a pretext that led to the near extinction of Christianity, previously a flourishing presence with a leading role in the highest levels of the State” (just consider Saddam’s former vice president, Tarek Aziz).
It is no coincidence, continued the expert, that “in the demonstrations after the bombings of the United States, Great Britain and France on Damascus, it was not difficult to make out the presence of religious.”
In addition, denounced Scaglione, “The West still has a romantic idea of what the anti-Assad front in Syria is all about. We call them rebels, not terrorists. I have seen, for example, soft positions by Roberto Saviano. But this is foolishness. The Christian of Syria is offended by such a reading of the facts.”
For many years, the “noble” intentions of the anti-Assad revolution have “vanished, either because of Assad’s own repression, or because of terrorists financed by Arab petro-monarchies.”
The pope and disappointment
The distrust of the Syrian Christians, according to Scaglione, “has also been extended to Bergoglio, because the last statements of the pope’s position have been seen as an attempt to avoid taking sides on what is happening in Syria, while the Christians expected a position sensitive to their demands. There has been a disconnect.”
The journalist remembered, for example, that during an Angelus, in the last days of the assault on Ghouta, a stronghold of anti-regime forces on the periphery of Damascus, “The Christians of the capital probably expected different kinds of remarks from the Pontiff. For them it was the end of a nightmare, since it was from Ghouta that the rebels continuously directed their attacks against the houses and the Christian buildings of Damascus.”
These feelings, concluded the journalist, were “probably exacerbated by seven years of suffering and massacres. Several sources tell me that Christians in Syria see the attitude of Christians in Europe almost as a betrayal. They expected more solidarity, beyond the economic aid that has also arrived. I recently spoke with pastors, who told me: ‘We expected interventions on our behalf when we suffered, when our towns were devastated by the jihadist militiamen of al Nusra. In the end, it never came.'”