Syria: “We are afraid of the Islamists... they are exclusivist!”

Source: FSSPX News

Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Greek Melkite Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo (Halab), Syria, and Apostolic Visitor to the Melkite Greek Catholic diaspora in Western Europe (almost 25,000 souls), visited Spain and Switzerland recently. On November 10th, while in Freiburg, the Archbishop answered questions from Jacques Berset, editor in chief of APIC. Archbishop Jeanbart was born on March 3, 1943 in Aleppo into a family of 13 children. He was ordained a priest in the Melkite Greek rite in 1968 and appointed Archbishop of Aleppo in 1995.

He stated that, “In the field the situation is quite different from what one sees at home on television ... Aleppo (the second city of the country) is about 20 minutes from the Turkish border and one hour from the Turkish city of Antakya (ancient Antioch). The border is open and many people come there by car to do their shopping. There are only a few hundred Syrian refugees who have settled in south-eastern Turkey, while the Aleppo Governorate has about 5 million inhabitants. They registered many simple travelers as refugees.. . .”

The prelate did not see the fighting, but certain of his priests had witnessed the carnage committed by unidentified armed groups terrorizing the population, as in Jisr al-Choughour. “If the UN speaks of 3,500 dead, it may be correct, but there was violence on both sides. Thus, in these figures there are many security force members and soldiers, because the armed insurgents without hesitation shot at law enforcement. The army does not use heavy weapons against the insurgents, as it did in Hama in February 1982. At that time, in order to suppress the violence of armed extremists backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they demolished the city center, causing 20,000 deaths. This is not what is happening today in Syria. . . "

The groups who want to destabilize the country are a minority in Syria and have foreign support, including certain Gulf countries or Sunni fundamentalists, such as the Salafist group close to the al-Qaeda based in Tripoli (Lebanon), noted the 68 year old Archbishop. He deplored that television stations such as Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabyia transform a demonstration of hundreds of opponents into thousands of adversaries to the ruling regime, and when the majority who are in favor of Bashar al-Assad take to the streets by the millions in Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia or in other cities, they are depicted as being numbered only a few thousand.

“I daresay that President Bashar al-Assad has great support . . . from no less than 75% of the population in cities and in rural areas. The vast majority of Syrians do not want an Islamic regime. The new defense minister General Daoud Rajha is a Christian, as is the director of the Central Bank. Bashar al-Assad is an educated man, a doctor who has studied and lived in Europe . . .  I hope that Syria will not be the fourth country to experience a sudden overthrow of power, after Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It would be a catastrophe for the entire region, not just for Christians,” reported this doctor of moral theology from the Gregorian in Rome.

He continued, “The abolition of the principle of citizenship, which guarantees equal treatment for all minorities—Christians, Druze, Shia, Ismaili, Alawite—and a return to sectarianism would be an unmitigated disaster.” This would cause a great exodus among the 1.7 million Christians who for half a century have experienced real friendship with the Muslim majority of the country: the Syrian Christians fear the establishment of a fundamentalist Islamic regime that would impose Sharia, the Islamic law. He pointed out that under the pretext of “democratization” they prepare for a much worse situation should the current regime suddenly collapse, because the vacuum would then be immediately occupied by the fundamentalist movements which are well organized. “We are afraid of the Islamists, because for them there is no place for different minorities, they are exclusivist!”

“For us, Muslim-Christian conviviality is not an empty word. There is no discrimination against Christians, neither from the point of view of the State nor from the law.” But today the danger of sectarianism, eradicated for nearly four decades, has resurfaced. And the emigration of Christians, which had slowed during the last 10 years, risks picking up with renewed vigor, explained Archbishop Jeanbart. He is convinced that Christian young people should remain in the country, to fulfill a mission. “Is not Syria, after Jerusalem, the first home of Christianity?” Seat of a diocese since the end of the third century, Aleppo has known a Christian presence since the time of the Apostles, but today, more than 200,000 Greek Melkite Catholics originally from Aleppo live abroad. “Our young people are literally sucked into the diaspora. Yet the government does protect us . . . .”

In an interview granted to the Bulletin of L’Œuvre d’Orient (Work of the East) on June 1, 2011, Archbishop Jeanbart said, “We are for serious progressive reform, not a revolution which would be detrimental for us Christians as well as for the other communities. In our country, Christians represent about 10% of the population or 2 million, of whom 3.5% are Catholics of all rites. They are well integrated and have the same rights as any citizen, they have access to all the professions—three ministers are Christians. The claims are legitimate. We need more freedom, equality and social justice. Eradicating corruption is a priority . . . but I think that the Western version of democracy is not transposable to the East. They are not yet accustomed to responsible freedom—which does not mean that we should not give it to them, but we need to teach them the rules. Until recently in Syria one did not speak of one’s faith. Today events conspire to reassert sectarianism and promote the emergence of fundamentalist movements, notably Salafi. These movements are alarming to Christians. I think instead a breath of national spirit is necessary; our country is better prepared than others. Christians and Muslims together must take responsibility.”

(Sources : Apic/œuvre-orient – DICI no. 245 Nov 25 2011)

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