NEW YORK — While calling for dialogue between Syria’s Assad regime and moderates among the opposition, a Maronite Catholic bishop has stressed the necessity of a continued Christian presence in the Middle East.
“We need the solidarity of people and governments in the West to ensure the ongoing presence of Christians in Syria and throughout the Middle East,” Bishop Elias Sleman of the Maronite Eparchy of Latakia told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need Oct. 17.
Bishop Sleman is visiting the United States to raise support for his people as well as internally displaced Syrians. He hopes to purchase livestock and agricultural equipment and gain funding to establish a residence for women attending school in Latakia.
He said that to establish peace in Syria, “great effort must be made to establish a dialogue between the regime and moderate elements of the opposition,” suggesting that foreign nations “put real pressure” on Syrian groups to negotiate.
Bishop Sleman said that “the big challenge is religious fanaticism.” He added that it is important that Christians remain in Syria and the Middle East because “the environment of Islam benefits from the engagement of the Christian faith, which ensures, of course, also our own openness with regard to the Muslim world.”
Religious fanaticism, he said, is a “breach” of “fundamental respect for God and man,” adding that “that is the message of the Christian witness” in Muslim-majority nations.
“We have lived together in Syria for 1,400 years,” Bishop Sleman reflected. “I cannot and will not speak separately of Christians and Muslims. … Why can we not manage to live together anymore?”
Bishop Sleman spoke in favor of religious pluralism, saying that “a country with a single religion becomes extremist, provoking war.” He spoke of Saudi Arabia as a place where “Muslims have not been forced to find ways to live together with Christians, have not been pushed to arrive at an openness.”
“But in Syria, Lebanon, in Jordan and so forth, we have lived together for the longest time. In those countries, it is hard to imagine Muslims living without Christians or vice versa.”
The bishop noted that “our religion is one of mission — it is not a religion that closes in on itself. We cannot accept the logic of uniformity; we stand for openness; that is the genius of Christianity.”
Bishop Sleman said that Syrian Christians need financial support from their Western brethren while the Syrian civil war continues, but that, in the long term, they must “find ways to become self-sufficient and thus be able to stay.”
The Syrian conflict has dragged on for 30 months, since demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and leader of the country’s Ba’ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war, which has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people and displaced countless thousands.
There are at least 2.1 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them are in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. An additional 4.25 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
The protests began as part of the Arab Spring, a wave of demonstrations against governments across the Arab world that began in Tunisia in December 2010.
“The Arab Spring has been depicted as this clear push for liberty and democracy — but the actual results in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, for example, are proving otherwise,” reflected Bishop Sleman.
The Syrian civil war is being fought among government forces, rebels — including both moderates and Islamists — and Kurds.
Bishop Sleman, whose port city of Latakia in northern Syria has been largely spared the civil war’s violence and has thus become a refuge for the internally displaced, regretted that “there has been no real leadership up to this point” among foreign nations putting pressure on dialogue among Syrian factions.
“Right now, in Syria, the story needs to be told that moderate rebels and Islamists have begun fighting each other,” he said.
“The world’s major powers must intervene now to stop Syria from tumbling into utter chaos. I am very worried about the situation,” he said. “Nonetheless, I continue to have hope — call it a foolish hope, if you will. But with God everything is possible.”