Geneva talks must represent Syrians

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‘At times like this we Christians must stick together. ISIS wants to kill us all regardless of a Christian’s church affiliation.’ – Patriarch Ignatius II
By John Newton and Oliver Maksan
ON the eve of fresh peace negotiations in Geneva, the head of the Syriac Orthodox Church has expressed fears that opposition groups taking part include extremists – and have virtually no backing among the people.
Talking to Aid to the Church in Need from Al Qaryatayn, which was liberated from Daesh (ISIS) on Sunday 3rd April, Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II said that some of the Syrian opposition at Geneva III lacked popular support in the country.
The patriarch added: “Of course, I hope that the talks will be successful. But the opposition there does not have many adherents here in Syria itself.
“What’s more, there are many Islamists among them. We Christians and others do not want to live under Islamic rule.”
But in his wide-ranging interview with the Catholic charity, the patriarch stressed that it was possible for members of the two religious traditions to live peaceably side by side.
He said: “In Syria there is no war between Christians and Muslims. What we’re dealing with here is primarily foreign terrorists coming to fight the jihad.
“There are certainly now Syrians who have adopted the jihadi ideology. But these ideas come from outside, primarily from Saudi Arabia and the Wahhabism practised there.
“I therefore do not see the reconciliation between Syrians of different faiths as the problem here. This is possible.
“After all, despite the many difficulties, we all lived peacefully together before the war in Syria. That was the Syria we knew.”
With UN talks seeking a political solution to the conflict due to resume this week, the patriarch stressed the need for an outcome supported by the people of Syria.
He said: “If we Syrians settled things between ourselves, there would be no problems, I believe. But we are not naïve.
“The difficulty of a political solution is that there are both regional and international interests which come together in Syria. This makes the situation so complicated.”
Speaking about the impact on the Church, Patriarch Ignatius estimated that about 40 percent of Syria’s Christians have now left the country.
He added: “I have no illusions. Most of them will not return. If it goes on like this, we Christians in Syria will disappear, just as we have almost disappeared in Turkey and Iraq.”
The patriarch rejected the emigration of the Christians to the West as a solution to the crisis: “The best way to support us is to help us stay in our homeland.
“Moving to the West is not a solution. Being a refugee in Europe is not a positive experience. It means you are culturally uprooted.
“It’s not good for the refugees and it’s not good for the societies that take them in.”
He added: “It would be much cheaper for Europe to help our people to stay in Syria, or temporarily in Lebanon or elsewhere. It would be important mainly to help the projects of the Church on the spot.
“We are very grateful to Aid to the Church in Need for adopting this approach and helping people on the spot. I hope that more organisations will follow this example.”
The Patriarch said that there were safe havens for refugees both in Syria and in neighbouring countries.
Speaking about his visit to Al Qaryatayn, Patriarch Ignatius said: “When I managed to visit the town with our Catholic brothers on Friday I was shocked by the extent of the devastation.
“Many houses had been completely or severely damaged during the fighting. Fittings had been stolen.”
He went on to say that “the residents who had fled now sometimes wept when they saw what had become of their town. It was particularly painful for me as someone with pastoral duties to see these tears.”
Patriarch Ignatius added: “It was especially painful to see how the churches had been wilfully defiled by IS.
“Both the Syriac Catholic Saint Elian monastery and our Syriac Orthodox church had been deliberately desecrated. Our church was even more severely damaged than the monastery.”
“At times like this we Christians must stick together. IS wants to kill us all regardless of a Christian’s church affiliation.”

Editor’s Notes

Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.

Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom St John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in more than 140 countries throughout the world.

The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 176 languages and more than 51 million copies have been distributed all over the world.

Aid to the Church in Need UK is a registered charity in England and Wales (1097984) and Scotland (SC040748). ACN’s UK office is in Sutton, Surrey and there is a Scottish office in Motherwell, near Glasgow.

For more information, contact John Newton, ACN Press Officer, 020 8661 5167 or Clare Creegan, Digital Media and Press Officer on 020 8661 5175.


John Pontifex
Head of Press & Information
Aid to the Church in Need (UK)
Direct dial: 020 8661 5161
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