Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius III has seen his beloved Syria bleed too much and his Church suffer with Syria’s people in a conflict that for three years has raged between the government forces of President Bashar Assad and a coalition of opposition forces bolstered by foreign Islamist militants.
In the midst of this chaos, the patriarch came to the United States in May to make his case for peace and reconciliation in Syria, thanks to the efforts of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC). Patriarch Gregorius is a member of the ICMC’s governing committee.
The ICMC is heavily involved in the Syrian crisis, providing vulnerable refugees medical care, youth education, psychological care for trauma victims and heaters, blankets and subsidized rents for people who would otherwise be homeless.
Close to 150,000 people have been killed in Syria, while close to 8 million have been displaced within and outside of the country. More than 2 million children have been traumatized by the war, while hundreds of villages now lie in ruins, and thousands upon thousands of persons of all ages and both sexes have been kidnapped, raped and abused and have experienced all manners of violence in the conflict.
Gregorius III said he plans to develop a program for peace in Syria that he hopes all the Christian bishops and patriarchs of the world can unite behind with Pope Francis. He wants this plan delivered to the international community through the efforts of Vatican diplomacy, so that the Church can show the world it is a force for dialogue and reconciliation.
But putting an end to the fighting means putting a stop to the violence, a violence fueled by the international community, including the United States, facilitating the transfer of weapons and money to both sides of the Syrian conflict.
So the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch made his case when he was in the U.S. in this interview with Register staff writer Peter Jesserer Smith. He wanted to encourage the American people, the Church and the Catholic bishops to support the work of the ICMC and the Church in Syria and demand the government work proactively for peace.
Why have you come to the United States?
I am here because it is a wonderful country and because I have a great vision of the most important problem of the modern time: the peace in Syria and the peace of the next neighbor of Syria, the Holy Land — Palestine. The two countries and their two problems are related to each other. I was really happy — thanks to ICMC, of which I am a member, and Mr. John Klink [ICMC president] — to have contact with the Church, state and people of America. I’m happy to bring the Church of Syria’s version about this very tragic situation in Syria [to America] and how to help with all possible means to bring back peace to Syria, which is the cradle and birthplace of Christianity.
Why is Syria so important for Middle-East Christians?
Syria is very central for the Christian presence in the whole Middle East. Syria has the only free church in a state that is mostly Muslim. It is the only state where Islam is not the religion of the state but is the religion of the president. Lebanon is Christian, but all other [Middle East] countries are Muslim states. Since the state is not Muslim, as a Christian, I have more room [to speak]; I am more at home in Syria than in other places because I am not in a Muslim state, but in Syria.
What have you been doing on your visit to the United States?
I wanted to bring this [situation] to the attention of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference. We also met with a number of congressmen to make Syria’s problems more intelligible and [address] how to go through the peace process. I was pleased to be at the bishops’ conference to present my point of view and tell them how we need the support of the bishops’ conferences of the whole world. I hope that, knowing more about our situation, they can present our case better to their governments and help them become more aware about the need for peace in Syria.
What message do you hope to send?
That my visit is a tool of peace with a message of reconciliation. We want a peace that can put an end to the war, which has had enough victims, enough death, enough killing, enough kidnappings. More than 100,000 people have been killed; 91 Christian churches have been damaged or deteriorated; 24 villages are empty of their Christian inhabitants. This is a big tragedy for all Syria’s people and especially for the Christians. So I wanted to be the voice of all these realities in Syria.
What is the nature of the conflict in Syria?
This conflict is described in many media as a civil war. But it is not a civil war. A civil war means that the groups of the same country are fighting each other. But it is not a civil war, and certainly not a Christian-Muslim conflict. It is partly, maybe, a Muslim-Muslim conflict — Sunni against Shiite — but only partly. Really, it is a kind of war against Syria, but in Syria. About 60 countries are working against Syria, sending money and mercenaries, and are allowing people to join the fighting in Syria — foreign fighters with different languages, from different Arabic countries. They’re murderers and bandits.
What about the opposition to President Assad?
There is an opposition, but it is very few and divided — and insignificant. I would like to have a good opposition. It is easier to have a good opposition than a bad opposition or a weak opposition or a divided opposition. Most of the fighters are not in the opposition — and that makes the situation very complex and chaotic.
How has the Church in Syria suffered in particular?
The Church in Syria is [needed] for stability. The whole problem is there is no stability, and this creates a great danger for all citizens. Because of this instability, the Christian community is vulnerable. To preserve our Christian community, we need to have stability. Against the present government, we see no real opposition, no powerful opposition, no faithful opposition.
What is the opposition for? The question is: Who can protect me, my children, my schools, my daily life, my offices, jobs and shops? It is the government. We are not for the government or the regime as such — but we are for stability. Who can protect us? All citizens have the choice to be for or against the government.
Are the Christians being deliberately targeted in this conflict?
I would say the Christians are not the direct target — sometimes we are — but they are targeted with the intent to instrumentalize them — to provoke riots between Christian and Muslim, Muslim and Muslim, so on and so forth — and make the war sectarian.
Weren’t there problems in Syria before the conflict?
There were problems, but not enough to merit this whole tragedy; more than 100,000 people killed, public and private institutions destroyed [as well as] schools. The concerns are more than a question of democracy, but it is no more in the opposition’s program.
Let me tell you, in 24 Christian villages, it is a danger to be under [the rebels]. In one particular town, they had to pay a monthly $30,000 to these groups for "protection." And they did the same thing to the Muslims. Muslims and Christians paid $60,000 monthly to these rebels — and what for? We don’t pay this when we’re protected by the government — why should I pay it to you? There are many places where this happened.
So, in spite of two and a half years of fighting and war, most of the population is for the government, because they are for stability as such.
Yet all groups can’t continue the same life as they had before. Things have to change. I think we will have the birth of a new society, and it may lead to a new spring for the whole Arab world to embrace.
How many Christians are martyrs in Syria?
Most of the Christians are what we would call victims. We have at least three real martyrs — I have proof for three. Altogether, we have 1,000 Christian victims and 450,000 who are displaced inside and outside Syria. Another 42,000 Christians are refugees in Lebanon. Some have gone to Sweden or the States, where they have relatives.
How can the Church be a witness for peace and reconciliation in Syria?
There are many voices, mostly from Muslims, who say, "Look how the Christians are behaving: positively, with a sense of love, reconciliation, of peace and solidarity." Our relief effort was a proof of that: From the beginning of the war to the present, we helped everybody, no matter if they were Christian or Muslim. So, from this Church, we have this luminous witness in this tragic situation. In the tragedy, they are suffering, but they really have been strong in their faith.
I can say the Church has played a very positive role in this situation in Syria.
How is the Church coping with the refugee crisis? What needs to be done?
It is a very tragic situation, because we can’t cope with it. We started, for example, with 300 families, and, now, we have 5,000 families to take care of. We have friends: ICMC, Aid to the Church in Need, Catholic Near East Welfare Association, Catholic Relief Services and so on. We have NGOs [non-governmental organizations] from Europe. But we have to cope with higher and higher numbers of people in need.
So the humanitarian problem is very huge today, and the Church cannot cope with all, but we are doing our best. We help Muslims and Christians, but we don’t have the full capability to help as we are needed.
Why is military action not the answer? What should the international community do?
They must really encourage a vision of peace and encourage the opposition to come into their programs and work with the government to avoid the foreign groups — the murderers, bandits and adventurers — and send no more weapons and warriors to the country.
America is not doing enough to encourage the opposition to work for peace. They are willing sometimes to give money or to give weapons, but not to encourage. We must encourage dialogue between the government and opposition.
Why is it so important that Christians stay in the Middle East?
It is the cradle of Christianity. Jesus said, "You will be my disciples." If we disappear, then nobody can offer testimony to the Lord. We are the proof of the Christian faith. We prove Jesus, that he was there. And if we disappear, then there are only Muslims here, and it becomes a Muslim land and Europe a Christian land: two camps where, at any moment, a clash is possible. But we make, and can make more and more, dialogue possible — that we can have a normal daily life possible together, work together, go to school together, converse together and so on. We are the proof of Christianity and the proof that we can live together.
Patriarch Gregorius asked the Register to include this prayer for our readers to pray for Syria:
"A Prayer for Peace in Syria and Assistance for Its Refugees"
Almighty and merciful God, grant that, just as you made yourself known to Saul on the road to Damascus, you may soon convert hearts to peace in Syria and that its people who have fled may soon return to their homeland.
We ask your blessing on those who, like your Son, have become refugees and have no place to call their own.
Look with mercy on those who, today, are fleeing from danger and are homeless and hungry.
Bless those who work to bring them relief; inspire generosity and compassion in all our hearts.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.