Melkite Catholic patriarch urges end to foreign interference in Syria

Catholic News Service
BROOKLYN, N.Y. ) — Syrian Catholics have a part to play in re-establishing peace in their homeland, despite their status as a minority. But before any serious attempt is made, foreign troublemakers must leave the country, a leading prelate said.

Syrian-born Melkite Catholic Patriarch Gregoire III Laham, who was in Brooklyn recently as part of a U.S. tour to raise awareness of what is going on in Syria, says the perspective is being misreported.

Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio hosted a dinner at his residence April 29, at which the patriarch spoke to a small group of local residents of Middle Eastern descent.

He disagrees with the description of what’s happening in Syria as a civil war.

“It is really a foreign war in Syria,” said the 84-year-old patriarch. “And it’s being waged against Syria.

“The country, Syria, is one of the most — excuse me if I say it in America — one of the most democratic countries in the whole Arab world. Except, let us say, Lebanon, or Israel.”

He claimed that foreigners have infiltrated the land and are causing all the trouble.

“The people (in Syria) are happy, they are,” he said. “There is some corruption. The secret service is very strong. OK, it is a regime, you know. It is a party boss, for 40 years now, but the new president is improving many things. Slowly, slowly. And I see a new vision, a new look of the world.”

An April report by the Congressional Research Service prepared for members of the U.S. Congress noted that since March 2011, the conflict in Syria has driven more than 2.6 million Syrians into neighboring countries as refugees and millions more have been displaced from their homes and in need of humanitarian aid. The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 have been killed in the ongoing civil war.

According to the patriarch, Syrian Christians and Muslims peacefully co-existed and even cooperated and cared for each other.

He said the United States plays a leading role in the region because Europe is following its lead. He described the American position as backing the rebels, sending arms and money and encouraging turmoil, even though the opposition includes extreme Islamist factions.

“I am in the United States in order to call upon (President Barack) Obama. We have trust in him! He can change. And I will call upon him to be the peacemaker of the Middle East. This is the real role of America — to be the peacemaker,” said Patriarch Laham.

Finding a way to achieve peace in Syria could lead to a path to peace in the entire Middle East, including in the Palestine-Israel conflict, he said.

“We have, as Christians, the role to bring trust between Europe, Christian Europe, and the Arabic Islamic world,” he explained. “We are working for the preservation of the Christian presence. You can’t speak about a Christian presence without speaking about and explaining the importance of the role of the Christians for the future of democracy, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, democracy opening, youth, working together, in spite of our minority — in numbers, minority let us say — we have this big role.

“This is what we say to our people. You have to be powerful in order to fulfill your role to be salt, to be light, and to be leaven in this society. Stay there. Without you, there is no testimony that Jesus was there.

“Jesus was born in Palestine, in the Holy Land, but Christianity was born in Syria. In order to preserve this reality, this history, and this role, we have to help — and also Europe, America — to help Christians to stay there. Not only by money! We need money, but let me tell you, we need more peace. And then, give me peace, I can guarantee a Christian, powerful presence in the Middle East.”

In New York, Patriarch Laham met with staff of the United Nations, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The patriarch’s visit was sponsored by the International Catholic Migration Commission.

The week after Patriarch Laham’s New York visit, the international Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, joined a multi-faith initiative cosponsored by bipartisan members of Congress calling on U.S.-based churches and religious leaders to more strongly support Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.

The charity’s chairman, George Marlin, said in a statement that “this is not a matter of pitting Christianity against Islam, but to put a halt to the abuses perpetrated by extremist Islamic factions bent on the destruction of Christianity — groups which inflict suffering on the general population as well.”

Marlin called on world leaders also to “protect Christianity’s patrimony and its presence in the Middle East; to recognize and support the church as a critical resource in helping to rebuild communities in conflict; and to enable local Christian communities to be of service to all citizens, regardless of faith.”