NTERVIEW: Syrian patriarch says Christians feel betrayed by West

By Anne-Beatrice Clasmann
Istanbul – Syria’s Christians, who make up more than 6 per cent of the population, are fearful they will be caught up in the 10-month power struggle between the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar al-Assad and the largely Sunni opposition movement.

In an exclusive interview with dpa, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III, head of the Syriac Catholic Church, which is in full communion with Rome, accused Western governments of sacrificing the rights of minorities in the Middle East in pursuing their geostrategic and economic interests.

dpa: In recent months there have been talks between Syrian churches on the position Christians should take in the conflict between al-Assad and the protest movement. What is the current position here?

Ignatius Joseph III: We Christians of the Middle East are disappointed at the policies pursued by the European Union and the United States, because we note that the Europeans and the Americans regard the problems of the Middle East solely from a political and economic viewpoint.

They have come to the conclusion that it is inevitable that Islamist religious fanatics will come to power in these countries and they have given up. We Christians feel that we have been betrayed by them.

dpa: What do you say to the accusation from the opposition that Syria’s Christian churches are supporting the regime, even though it is violating human rights?

Ignatius Joseph III: Yes, we are accused of being on the side of the regime, but all we aim to achieve in the end is that our communities will be able to live in peace. We always have the negative example of Iraq in mind, where many of our co-religionists had to emigrate.

dpa: Certain Syrian Christians say they are, on religious grounds, unable to support a regime that uses violence and kills children.

Ignatius Joseph III: This is a totalitarian regime – that cannot be denied. This is regrettable. But in Syria there has been no democratic education. Apart from a brief phase following the end of the colonial period, we have never had democracy…

It is true that this is a police state, and there are many political prisoners … But when there is conflict, and the security forces want to re-establish order in an area, then this cannot happen without the use of force.

dpa: Have you spoken to Western governments, which are banking on the fall of the Syrian government, in order to highlight the situation of the Christians?

Ignatius Joseph III: In May, I met French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe in Paris, and I realized that France and the EU have a preconceived opinion of the Baath regime in Syria. They think this is a monstrous regime that kills its own citizens.

Yes, there have been and there are massacres. But nobody talks about the hundreds of thousands of deaths that took place in Iraq (after the US-led invasion) or of the tens of thousands who died recently in Libya.

What would a solution to the conflict in Syria look like, now that so many people have died in a way that has set in motion a spiral of violence on both sides?

Ignatius Joseph III: There should be dialogue … But in our society we still have the concept of revenge. It is not the way it is in Turkey, where there is an Islamic party in power, but which shows a certain tolerance of those who think differently…

Why not have dialogue? Because 5,000 people have been killed? After World War II, which caused the death of millions, Germany and France also engaged in dialogue.