Dearly beloved readers and subscribers of Mode of Life, as time progresses and the weight given by Western leaders calling upon regime change, we often forget or are not informed of the problems of what is truly ocurring on the ground in Syria. Speaking as one who has lived and studied there, and knowing the difficulty of everyday life in peacetime, I have been concerned by the manner in which the Syria conflict has been portrayed within the world media. Admittedly the Assad regime has brought many problems to Syria and its people, but when one compares the country in terms of other nations in the Middle East region, it has been able to maintain a higher degree of stability, tolerance and fair standards of living than her other Middle Eastern counterparts have who have not been able to attain. Since Bashar Al-Assad’s presidential succession after the death of his father, he has worked towards slowly opening up the country to outside influences and had allowed the free establishment of interent cafes and a programme of gradual liberalisation. However, this process has had its obstacles and problems, because after all, the Assad regime is a dictatorship, and by nature such tyrannies require force to remain in power and there are bound to be abuses of human rights in that effort of self-preservation. So we are left with what one may call a “catch 22”.
Personally I have found it very difficult to maintain contacts with friends and acquaintances in Syria over the last year or so, but one thing is clear from whatever correspondences I have been able to receive, is that the majority of Syrians are calling for peaceful change and reform to occur, and that the conflict is being fuelled from outside the country. That in itself, is a grave admission as to the true roots and reality of the present conflict, which could only point to something very sinister and possibly conspiratorial within global politics. One only has to recall George Bush Jnr’s proclaimation some years ago of the “Axis of Evil” by which Syria was one of the countries named. As many may recall Iraq was one of the countries also named, and was later accused of having weapons of mass destruction, that after the fall of Saddam Hussein revealed that no such weapons had existed. The price paid is an ongoing presence of coalition forces trying despereately to maintain peace and stability in a power vacuum, and being killed alongside civilians who are struggling for their everyday needs and concerns. It is the Iraqi people who have suffered immensely for this, for they have reaped both occupation and Islamic fundamentalism, along with their own internal struggles of tribal and social strife.
Nevertheless in returning to our topic of discussion, the conflict in Syria threatens one of the oldest Christian communities in the world which has withstood the onslaught of many attacks upon its very survival from persecutions, invasions and conquests, ranging from:
- The Pagan Roman and Jewish persecutions
- The heretical movements and schisms of the early Christian and Byzantine era (like the “Monophysite” controversy)
- The Arab Muslim Caliphate and its “tolerance” as epitomised by the Treaty of Umar or the accounts of martyrdom as cited within Arab chronicles and Christian Synaxaria (Collection of Saints Lives).
- The Crusaders (who pillaged, killed or forcibly sought to convert all indigenous Christians to accept the authority of Rome, the Maronites were one of the Middle Eastern Christian groups that submitted to Papal primacy during this period)
- The retribution massacres of the Muslims after the Crusades, especially by the “hero” of the resistance to the Crusades, King Baybus.
- The Ottomans
- The Jesuit missionaries (who came in the 1600 and 1700s disguised as indigenous Syrian Christians in seeking to convert indigenous believers to Catholicism, culminating in the “Schism of the Antiochene Patriarchate” and the formation of the “Melkite Patriarchate”)
- The French
- The Protestant missionaries who came in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries to convert indigenous Christians, instead of lending them a helping hand
- And finally the present civil strife…
This readers, is the bloodstained and difficult martyric witness that Syrian Christians have withstood for centuries in bearing out faith in Christ over 2000 years of history. This very fact came to the attention to the Australian public with recent interviews on our news services and newspapers by the visiting Melkite Catholic Abbess of St James Monastery, Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, who has given numerous talks regarding the state of Syrian affairs and the concerns and daily realities of Syrian Christians. As part of our “Syria Special”, we include one of the interviews that Mother Agnes-Mariam has given here in Melbourne as part of her visit to Australia. In any case we hope and trust some of the following articles help provide a counter and alternate perspective from that usually reported within the mass media.
Christians ’emptied from Middle East’
By: Rowan Callick
6 October, 2012
THE mother superior of a 1500-year-old monastery in Syria warned yesterday during a visit to Australia that the uprising against Bashar al-Assad has been hijacked by foreign Islamist mercenaries, with strong support from Western countries.
Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix was forced to flee to neighbouring Lebanon in June when she was warned of a plot to abduct her, after she revealed that about 80,000 Christians had been “cleared” by rebel forces from their homes in Homs province.
She described on the website of the Greek-Melkite Catholic monastery of St James, the church she rebuilt 18 years ago after discovering it in ruins, how Islamist rebels had gathered Christian and Alawi hostages in a building in Khalidiya in Homs. Then they blew it up with dynamite and attributed the act to the regular army.
Mother Agnes-Mariam plans to return to Syria soon, to support the Mussalaha (Reconciliation) community-based movement, which rejects sectarian violence and includes, she said, members of all ethnic and religious communities who are tired of war.
Rallies with the theme “Hands Off Syria” are scheduled for lunchtime tomorrow in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart, and will involve a wide variety of groups from the country.
Mother Agnes-Mariam, 60, speaks five languages fluently and spent 22 years as a contemplative Carmelite nun in Lebanon, where she was born. Her late father was a Palestinian refugee who fled Nazareth in 1948 when the state of Israel was established.
She told The Weekend Australian, while visiting Melbourne yesterday – between meetings with Catholic Archbishop Dennis Hart and state parliamentarians – that after the uprising began, she had noticed growing numbers of “aggressive, armed gangs which wished to paralyse community life, abducting people, beheading, bringing terror even to schools”.
Slowly these groups became identified: some are recruited by and affiliated with al-Qa’ida, some have a Muslim Brotherhood background, some are attached to other Islamist factions. Only about one in 20 of these fighters is Syrian, she said. The rest come from places ranging from Britain to Pakistan, from Chechnya to North Africa. “Many have fought in Iraq, some also in Afghanistan,” Mother Agnes-Mariam said. “Now their cause is being recycled to kill Syrians.”
The two million Christians in Syria – which contains the world’s first church – “are sharing Syria’s fate”, she said.
“But as a minority, they are more vulnerable. They have no army. They are caught, like the filling in a sandwich.”
Her own community of nuns at St James has been mostly trapped in the monastery for 18 months.
In the beginning, she said, the uprising embraced values including freedom and democracy. “But it steadily became a violent Islamist expression against a liberal secular society.” She described “a hidden will to empty the Middle East of its Christian presence. We don’t know why. We have always been the peaceful catalyst bringing diverse communities together.”
The foreign Islamist threat, she said, “is a terrible one for all the minorities. Do we stay and become second-class citizens? Where do we go? We shouldn’t have to accept this in the 21st century.”
Mother Agnes-Mariam said some Westerners, “even Christians”, were insisting that all Syrians enter dialogue with the Islamist insurgents to form common cause, tolerating the imposition of “a kind of Islamic will” – and criticising her as a controversialist. “But what is happening now is against the uprising,” she said.
“There is a way to implement the choices of the Syrian people – by giving them back self-determination and freeing them of this massive foreign interference and this media instigation for violence. “There are powerful seeds inside the Syrian people for reform through dialogue and negotiation.”
The Tragedy of Syria: Christians in the Crossfire
John H. Armstrong
March 23, 2012
If you watch or follow American news, from the left or the right, you hear continual calls for our government, working with the United Nations, to engage militarily with the Syrian government in support of the rebels in that nation. I submit that the simple view held by the vast majority of Syria’s Christians is very different from what we hear day-to-day. Their message is: “Please stay out!” Why? After all, some Christians have died in the present cycle of extreme violence. And this uprising is now nearly a year old. The images we generally see are of government oppression and open attacks on rebels that defy imagination.
As with Iraq so it now is with Syria. If the secular government is removed the end result will likely be much worse for minorities, especially for Christian minorities. Syria’s religions are as follows: 74% Sunni Muslims, 13% other Muslims, 10% Christian and 3% Druze. President Bashar Assad, an autocratic leader for sure, leads a secular government. If he is removed the result would likely be a Sunni Muslim government that would be extremely unfavourable to minorities. Those Syrians I have spoken with tell me that Sunni Muslims, Christians and the Alawite community, a small offshoot of Shiite Islam, are all under threat if this present government falls. (Interestingly, the Russians and the Chinese are keeping the UN out of Syria right now. Their reason seems to be entirely based on a “balance of power” position in the Middle East!)
Like Saddam Hussein was in Iraq, Bashar Assad is an oppressive ruler. But if the West supports an “Arab Spring” the results will very likely be much like those we’ve seen in Egypt and Tunisia. A dentist, under anonymity, said, “Of course the Arab Spring is an Islamist movement. It’s full of extremists. They want to destroy our country, and they call it a ‘revolution’.”
Syria’s Christians date their origins to Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. Church leaders in Syria have generally aligned themselves with the government urging their followers to give Assad a chance to enact a long-promised political overhaul while also calling for an end to the present violence.
Ignatius IV, Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, described Syria as an oasis of religious tolerance where Christians can worship freely, build sanctuaries and run schools, activities that are restricted to varying degrees in almost every other Middle Eastern country. Christian ministers are often shown on television in Syria taking part in joint prayer services for peace with Muslim clerics. And the defence minister of Syria is openly Christian! The Patriarch actually displays a photograph of himself with President Assad on his wall. I find the same response among Syrian Orthodox Christians in the United States.
Do not misunderstand my point. Christians have died in Syria. Things have been terrible over there the past twelve months. But recent reports from Syria suggest the rebels are as violent and aggressive as the government troops. Rebels are acting more and more like the Assad regime according to many Christians. The truth is that Christians in Syria have little or no confidence in a successful revolution. The ones I have spoken with tell me to urge Americans to stay out of this situation. It took me some time to realize why but now I think that I understand their reasons. When we removed Saddam we celebrated but the church in Iraq began a whole new period of history. Many Christians have died, churches have been bombed and most Christians have fled Iraq now, many into neighbouring Syria.
While we may think these Middle Eastern uprisings are a good thing the fact is that most of them lead to great suffering for our brothers and sisters. Perhaps we should make this a higher priority than America’s own political agenda in the world. I, for one, think the church transcends military operations. I hope our government will listen to the Christians of Syria, and other minorities, and stay out. I also pray for the peace of Syria, especially for my suffering brothers and sisters there. Many of these people are wonderful Christians with deep faith in God and profound love for their homeland. Syria is a gorgeous country with friendly people. It may not be a just democracy but it is not an evil empire either.
One of my frequent themes on this blog is global Christian mission. If we are to practice a truly global faith, and not simply an Americanized version of Christianity, we should pray for the church in Syria and then work for peace. This seems to be at the core of what it means to faithfully follow Jesus in the modern world.
Syria’s Christians can be the catalysts for peace
Thursday 2 August 2012
Christians have no ambition to rule Syria but they can encourage the warring parties to negotiate a peace deal.
What if the regime fell today? This is the question that occupies all Syrians, especially Syrians who are in one of the minorities.
In Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, western allies admitted that they had no postwar plan and many have paid the price for this – especially the Iraqi minorities; since Saddam fell, hundreds of thousands of Christians as well as Muslims have fled Iraq in the face of sectarian violence and terrorism. Now, people are calling for a regime change in Syria without a clear plan for what should happen next. Should the minorities pay the same price in Syria?
Syrians are a demographic mosaic that includes the Sunni majority plus Christians, Druze, Alawites and Kurds. Just like every other group in Syrian society, the Christians have a range of attitudes to what is happening: some support the regime, many have refused to be drawn into the conflict, and others are active members of the opposition.
I think that perhaps 95% of Syrians – especially the Christians – believe violence is not the way to bring change to Syria.
It is vital to remember, though, that no Christian religious leader, in Syria or outside, has the power to talk “in the name of Christians”. When we hear a bishop or a patriarch speaking, they do not represent Christians as a whole. It is very dangerous to build a picture of “Christians in Syria” through some religious figure, including me: I cannot speak in the name of all Christians in Syria any more than an English priest can be said to represent the views of every Christian in Britain.
Most Syrians fear what will happen after the regime has fallen. Religious fanaticism is growing across the Middle East and Syrians of every religion dread the establishment of a radical Muslim Syria.
Despite what you might read in much of the western media, Syria is an enlightened, secular society with a deeply spiritual core and the common belief is that Syria is for everybody. A fundamentalist state would destroy the traditions of co-existence and religious harmony that have existed here since the fall of the Ottoman Empire nearly 100 years ago. Syrian independence was won with the blood of all Syrians – Muslim, Christian, Druze, Alawite and Kurdish.
Although most Syrians fear radical Islam taking power, our greatest worry is that we have no alternative political system to replace the regime when it does fall. We know from our neighbours in Lebanon, Libya and Iraq that countries can descend into chaos and sectarianism when one government goes and there are no institutions to replace it.
Sadly, the whole infrastructure in Syria – political, economic and social – is rotten to the core and its institutions need to be renewed and replaced. For instance, we have two huge organisations dominating the life of children and youth but both are inextricably linked to the Ba’ath party. Civil society in Syria is totally suspended: everything has to go through the ruling party.
Because Christians are a minority, the general view is that they are sympathisers of the regime because they have been “protected” by it. In fact, under the present regime, Christians have never been given special treatment or protection in any way. Although Christians have not been persecuted in Syria, and we have been free to practice our faith and go to church, we have not been exempt from suffering under the corruption that engulfed the regime and infected much of Syrian society.
Christians were not persecuted even before the Assad family came to power – in the 1940s, Syria had a Christian prime minister. As a Syrian priest, I deeply believe that Christians do not need to hide behind any regime to be protected; we are protected by being Syrians, an original part of the fabric of our society – do not forget that Syria was one of the earliest centres of Christianity 600 years before the birth of Islam.
Violence breeds only violence and revenge. At the moment, both sides are determined to destroy the other; inevitably this will lead to the destruction of the entire country, as we have seen elsewhere. I believe more than ever that the only way to resolve this conflict is for Syrians to meet at the table of dialogue and negotiation, and for regional and international powers to facilitate and encourage this dialogue without actually taking part.
In Geneva, the international conference on Syria included all international powers, except the Syrians. What we need for peace is the exact opposite of the Geneva conference.
Christians have no ambition to rule Syria – the idea would be ridiculous. Because of this, we can be catalysts for peacemaking, and encourage all sides, for the sake of Syria, to come together and leave their big egos and their even bigger foreign allies behind them. Peacemaking must be without preconditions; the time for negotiation is now, even in the midst of the conflict. To negotiate after tens of thousands have died is better than negotiating once hundreds of thousands have perished.
FSA Leader Surrenders to SAA in Syria
A group of Syrian rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) defected and joined pro-government forces on Wednesday. The troops’ commander announced that “the road is open,” and called on to other rebels to abandon their uprising.
Eleven rebel troops – three officers, two warrant officers and six civilians – defected from the FSA and now support President Bashar al-Assad, AFP reported.
“We have decided to return to the army and cooperate with the Ministry of National Reconciliation,” Lieutenant-Colonel Khaled Abdel Rahman al-Zamel said during a conference of non-combatant Syrian opposition groups.
“We are all Syrians, we reject a revolution that starts with the shedding of blood,” al-Zamel said, eliciting applause from the audience.
“The solution can’t be achieved through holding weapons, blasts, sabotage or killing the innocent, but repenting from the wrongdoing and through political means,” Xinhua quoted al-Zamel as saying. He previously served as a captain in the Syrian Army, before joining the FSA months ago. He was reportedly the head of the FSA’s leadership in southern Syria, and acted as the deputy chief of the rebels’ military council.
The appearance of al-Zamel and his men came as a surprise to the Damascus conference, organized by some 30 Syrian opposition groups with the aim of opening peaceful dialogue with the Syrian government to resolve the ongoing crisis in the country. The gathering was attended by ambassadors from Russia and Iran, and China’s temporary charge d’affaires for Syria – three nations who consistently supported the Assad regime over the past 18-month uprising.
Al-Zamel’s statement sparked debate among anti-regime activists – some argued that al-Zamel was forced to make his statement; others claimed that they had no idea who he was.
Yaser al-Abed, another FSA officer who attended the conference, formerly commanded a rebel group in Aleppo province. During the conference, al-Abed called on other insurgents to disarm and surrender: “Work your minds and know that holding weapons is nothing but a violation to the minds and freedom alike.”
“Syria is our home and honor, but they wanted to burn it. The most targeted things are our religion, nation and land,” al-Abed said. “I have known all that, and that is why I have decided to lay down my weapon to be a loving person who seeks the good and the humanity.”
The conference of opposition groups in the Syrian capital of Damascus called on both the Syrian authorities and the rebels to “immediately” end violence in the country though an international peace plan.
On Wednesday, twin car bombings by rebels targeting military command headquarters in Damascus, and a separate rebel attack killed four Syrian security officers and injured another 14.
That same day, rebel snipers killed a journalist with Iran’s Press TV, Syrian national Maya Nasser, as he reported on live TV about the bombings at the army headquarters.
Russia and the US continued to clash in the UN Security Council over the ongoing Syrian crisis: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemned Western nations for their stance on Syria. “The states that encourage the opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to give up on the ceasefire and dialogue and to demand that the regime capitulate, bear responsibility for the continuing bloodshed,” he said. “Such an approach is unrealistic and encourages terrorism, which is used by the opposition.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of “murdering of his own people,” and argued that the UN is paralyzed by Russia and China’s vetoing of Western-backed resolutions on Syria.
Dedicated to all Syrians whatever their religious or political affiliation and we call upon for peace.
Syrian National Anthem
My homeland, My homeland Glory and beauty,
Sublimity and splendor Are in your hills, Are in your hills Life and deliverance,
Pleasure and hope Are in your air, Are in your Air, Will I see you? Will I see you?
Safe and comforted, Sound and honored Will I see you in your eminence?
Reaching to the stars, Reaching to the stars My homeland, My homeland My homeland, My homeland
The youth will not tire, ’till your independence, Or they die We will drink from death,
And will not be to our enemies Like slaves,
Like slaves We do not want,
We do not want An eternal humiliation
Nor a miserable life We do not want
But we will bring back Our storied glory,
Our storied glory My homeland, My homeland
The sword and the pen Not the talk nor the quarrel Are our symbols,
Are our symbols Our glory and our covenant And a duty to be faithful Moves us, moves us Our glory,
Our glory Is an honorable cause And a waving standard
O, behold you In your eminence Victorious over your enemies
Victorious over your enemies My homeland, My homeland.