Syria: Patriarch Laham growls at accusations of Christian collusion with Assad regime
Gregory III Laham, the spiritual leader of the Melkite Church has rejected accusations of scheming with the Assads, stressing bishops’ responsibility for the Christian communities in a country ravaged by civil war
As ministers are being killed in Damascus and the Syrian regime totters after the blows it has been dealt by the armed opposition, Church leaders are faced with the opening up of a dangerous home front. This is the perception given by the 24 point document published yesterday by the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham, leader of the largest Catholic community in Syria. This is the first time, leaders of Christian Churches have dedicated a large chunk of the text to defending themselves against accusations of scheming with the Assad regime.
From his home in the heart of the old city of Damascus, the impetuous Greek-Catholic Patriarch is denouncing the campaign against high level leaders of the Syrian Churches who have been accused of collusion, subjection and indolence which is allegedly proven by the hesitant attitude or veiled hostility shown towards the revolution since the beginning of the crisis. “The State and its leaders,” Gregory assured, “have never suggested or invited pastors to make a declaration or adopt a certain position. The freedom of pastors has been guaranteed everywhere to date, both in behavioural terms and in terms of public and private declarations. I personally did a tour of European capitals last March and did not ask for anyone’s permission or advice; nor did anyone ask me to adopt any particular position.”
The Patriarch reminded bishops of their role as official representatives of the Christian communities and the importance of protecting their interests in this war-torn Syria. “We will not allow anyone to speak on our behalf or on behalf of the Christians in Syria, to manipulate our statements in order to make accusations of any type against us.” Laham believes that doubting the objectivity of bishops, the reliability of their sources of information or the news communicated by them is “subversive” seeing as though their appeals for national reconciliation (including their appeals in support of the interfaith Mussalaha movement, seen by rebels as a façade which has lately been useful to the regime) are inspired by the” permanent contact with their priests, clerics and nuns, as well as with faithful and all citizens of all confessions and prominent figures of the Nation.”
Laham denies that the civil war of becoming explicitly anti-Christian but stresses that as the weak link in the Arab world, Christians are the first to pay the price in situations of war and anarchy. He also sees the positions “of some figures, institutions and press bodies” whose “untimely interest in Christians can increase the radicalism of certain armed factions against them, as we saw happening in Homs, Qusayr, Yabrud and Dmeineh Sharquieh.”
Behind the Pope’s words one intuits a potential crisis in the authority of Christian leaders who have managed the modus vivendi of the Assad regime over the decades. “Unfortunately, at the beginning, the Churches did not believe in the revolution,” George Sabra, Christian spokesman for the Syrian National Council, the Syrian opposition coalition, reiterated again yesterday to Fides news agency. Deeper rooted is the uncertainty regarding the future of a national framework whose anomalous “secularism” and the oppressive omnipresence of security forces which had guaranteed protection to Christian minorities also in order for them to be able to present themselves to the outside world as guarantors of interreligious co-existence; a rare thing in the tinderbox which is the Middle East. According to Laham, this status is the fruit of a historical stratification that began with Ottoman legislation, continued during the French protectorate and will need protection in the future as well. Meanwhile, “the affirmation that the Christian statute exists because of their support for the regime and that it will be eliminated along with the regime,” is completely false. Nevertheless, the future of Christians appears uncertain in Syria too. This is the scenario Benedict XVI will fatally have to face on his forthcoming trip to Lebanon.