The British Orthodox Church

within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

Concern for kidnapped Syrian bishops

Abba Seraphim added his voice to the many people concerned for the safety of two Syrian bishops who were kidnapped yesterday and asked for prayers for their early and safe release.

On 22 April, the village of Kfar Dael, a terrorist group ambushed the car containing the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul Yazigi of Aleppo & Alexandretta, who were returning to Aleppo from a humanitarian visit. Some reports say that they had been negotiating the release of priests who had been kidnapped earlier. Their driver, a deacon of the church, was killed. It is understood that they were returning from the rebel-held Bab al Hawa crossing with Turkey and that Mar Gregorios had gone to collect Metropolitan Paul because he had crossed there several times before and was familiar with the route. Metropolitan Paul is the brother of the recently elected Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, John X.

Abba Seraphim has repeatedly expressed the view that the deteriorating situation in Syria and the uprising leading to a vicious and brutal war, which is now entering its third year, has been mishandled by the Western powers and media and Her Majesty’s government bears a heavy responsibility for this. Only by bringing all sides together can a solution be found, but by excluding representatives of the Syrian government, whose prolonged survival clearly shows that it still has significant support in the country, we have helped to prolong the conflict.

The recognition of the so-called National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people” is irresponsible and short-sighted whilst the appointment of Walid Safur as their ‘ambassador’ to the United Kingdom is a political gesture rather than an effective way of promoting dialogue with both sides.

The loose federation of opponents of the Syrian government is not representative of all the Syrian people. Indeed the Foreign Secretary has stated that part of the resolution of this conflict requires Syria’s opposition groups to win the trust of the Syrian people and provide a united and viable political alternative. The rebels do not represent all sunni Syrians, let alone the significant minorities of the Alawites, Kurds and Christians as well as Druze and others. These minorities alone make up more than one third of the Syrian population.

There are serious concerns that the armed rebel groups contain many foreign mercenaries acting for foreign interests and have a high number of active Jihadists in their ranks. Their Islamicist agenda is clearly visible, and they have already targeted Christian, Kurdish as well as Alawite communities for purely sectarian reasons.

The Free Syrian Army looks to the spiritual leadership of Sheikh Adnan Al-Arour, a Syrian exile in Saudi Arabia, who divides Syrians into three categories; those who support the revolution, those who ignore it, and those who oppose it. He insists the judgement against those who are against the revolution will be great. He speaks of the Alawites in particular, saying that any Alawites who stand with “us” will be protected, but “those that stand against us will have their flesh ground in meat grinders and fed to the dogs.”

There is no question of the scale and extent of the atrocities being committed on a daily basis but too often the international media and the British government draw on reports issued by the so-called “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”, a UK based mouthpiece of anti-Assad activists demonstrating a partisan view of events, aimed at blaming the Syrian government for every atrocity committed.

The two bishops have both been active in calling for a peaceful solution and have vigorously eschewed any recourse to violence. Despite the obvious dangers they have preferred to remain with their flocks through some of the worse times and have both been at the forefront of organising humanitarian support and maintaining the constructive inter-faith dialogue and co-operation which they have promoted throughout their ministries. Even the circumstances of their kidnapping, both selflessly engaged in helping others and working together as true brothers in Christ, commends them to all those who seek peace and harmony in a troubled world.

Disturbing News from Aleppo

In two disturbing Press Communiqué issued by the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Aleppo we learn how the civil war in Syria is impinging on the daily life of the Christian community. Throughout these difficult times the clergy remain to minister to their flocks and to provide practical support to all people, regardless of their religious and ethnic affiliations. In the midst of such devastation they continue to call for restraint and peace

On Friday 19 October 2012 the Syrian Orthodox School (Bani Taghlub I), which is adjacent to the Archbishopric in the Sulimania District of Aleppo, sustained a direct hit on its third floor (where the kindergarten is located), by what appeared to be a home-made mortar.  Providentially, as Friday is a holiday in Syria there were no injuries or fatalities apart from the damage to the third floor and the childrens’ play area. The source was unclear, “as missiles fall relentlessly and indiscriminately, day and night over all residential districts of Aleppo”.

Bani Taghlub has 550 pupils, but due to the current situation and migration from the city, the school administration expects to only have about 50 students attending school this year. It was also about to celebrate its centenary and discussions had already taken place about this. The governor and the administration assessed the damages and decided that business should run as usual, and that such incidents should not deprive the young children from their basic right to education. The school will be able resume its usual schedule at the beginning of November, as the necessary repair work is already under way.

Two days later, on Sunday 21 October 2012, a suicidal booby-trapped car exploded early in the morning in the main roundabout of the New Syriac district. It left huge craters and a considerable amount of damage to the Bet Hasada’ Complex, a Syrian Orthodox charitable endowment, which includes an elderly Home, al-Kalima Grammar School and a Hospital. Thanks be to God, the damages sustained were only material and no precious lives were lost. Naturally, the fear, traumatisation and horror this explosion imposed on the vulnerable elderly, recovering injured, convalescing patients, and dedicated, overstretched medical staff of these institutions are incalculable.

The Communiqué concluded, “We unreservedly condemn and deprecate the escalation of these armed manifestations, and all kinds of shelling and explosions that can only lead entrenched combatant brothers deeper  into this vicious circle of violence, devastation and death.We also condemn and deplore the continuation of kidnapping, killings, demolition of infrastructure, heritages and the attrition activities aimed at the crippling of the local and national economy.

The status quo of this conflict is apparent and demoralizing as it can only spiral to propagate the culture of anarchy, resentment and disunity, in a city which has never knowingly sustained such level of violence, destruction and decimation in its history. Until recently, we only knew affection, tolerance and a healthy co-existence of the people in our blessed city. It is heartbreaking to helplessly witness our beloved Aleppo and other Syrian cities, villages and hamlets becoming battlefields and their systematic obliteration. No one can raise the flag of victory over the heaps of such ruins and sacrilege.

Therefore, we wholeheartedly call on all to join us in prayer in support of all internal and external efforts and endeavours to achieve a lasting Cease-fire. To pray for peace and re-consolidate our shaken pillars of harmony and trust, and to hold love, security and national unity as holy aims of our Syrian solidarity.”


Abba Seraphim’s letter to the Foreign Secretary

The Right Hon. William Hague,

House of Commons,

London, SW1A 0AA

Dear Mr. Hague,

I am writing on behalf of the Law & Parliamentary Committee of the British Orthodox Church to express concern about aspects of the United Kingdom’s current policy towards the civil war in Syria.

Whilst we share the concerns of all peaceful people for the plight of ordinary citizens caught up in the fighting, and join in condemning the brutal atrocities committed by both groups of combatants, we nevertheless feel that the British government’s endorsement and support of the so-called Free Syrian Army is a grave error.

Atrocities have been committed by all sides in this conflict and the Free Syrian Army is no more innocent of these than any other of the combatants. In September the respected international NGO, Human Rights Watch reported that armed opposition groups have subjected detainees to ill-treatment and torture and committed more than a dozen extrajudicial or summary executions in Aleppo, Latakia, and Idlib. Although Opposition leaders told Human Rights Watch that they will respect human rights and that they have taken measures to curb the abuses, Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern about statements by some opposition leaders. When confronted with evidence of extrajudicial executions, three opposition leaders stated that those who killed deserved to be killed, and that only the worst criminals were being executed.

The only support which the United Kingdom government should be offering is in strictly humanitarian aid, mediated through recognised independent agencies. In mid-August, when Britain announced its intention to send £5 million ($8 million) in aid directly to the Free Syrian Army it sent an ‘unbalanced’ message to the parties in Syria, because it placed insufficient blame or conditions on the regime’s opponents.

We have particular concern for the plight of the Christian minority, which appears already to have suffered unduly. These Christian communities have survived since Apostolic times and have flourished alongside other faiths harmoniously for generations. We see the dire situation of Christians in Iraq as a warning of what could happen in Syria.  Statements by the British government during this conflict have not given adequate attention to the plight of Christians in Syria. We are especially concerned that areas where there was formerly a substantial Christian population have been significantly reduced in numbers.  In the central city of Homs, where there has always been a large Christian population, there was heavy fighting in which several churches and Christian centres were destroyed or damaged. It is reported that some 60,000 Christians have been expelled by the Free Syrian Army’s ‘al-Farouq Brigade’.  This pattern of forced eviction, or of using some of the prominent Christians as hostages or ‘human-shields’ has been repeated throughout the towns and villages of Syria and is well documented by the international aid organisation, the Barnabas Fund.

On 16 September, Lebanon’s Daily Star contained reports of fierce fighting in the compound of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Aleppo’s Midan District, whose walls had been pierced by rocket-propelled grenades. The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, told Reuters that hundreds of Christian families had fled in recent weeks as rebels and soldiers battle for control of the country’s biggest city. “In its modern history Aleppo has not seen such critical and painful times as the last few weeks. Christians have been attacked and kidnapped in monstrous ways and their relatives have paid big sums for their release,” he said. In the central city of Homs, which saw the heaviest bloodshed earlier this year, he said several churches and Christian centres had been damaged in the fighting.

The Church has avoided partisan politics yet backed the regime’s policy of religious co-operation and inter-faith dialogue. It would be unfair to see them as collaborators, rather that they worked to build bridges and show mutual love and respect. The Melkite Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory III expressed this well when he said, “The Church is not for or against the regime,” he added, “but it is a community that wants to give a testimony of love and wants to save Syria.” He also warned “Reconciliation is the only way possible: otherwise Syria heads towards death … In the conflict that continues in Syria, chaos prevails and there are no appropriate answers. No one has them, neither the government, nor the opposition, nor the international community. We are in the dark and, in this situation, faith is the answer and reconciliation is our proposal.” At its meeting at Atchaneh in Lebanon(10-14 September) the Holy Synod of the Syrian Orthodox Church resolved, “The Holy Synod feels the responsibility of all parties to stop violence, the language of weapons, killings and violations at all levels. They urge everyone to promote the dialogue of peace, which is basic for all reforms and solutions of the current crises.”

Whilst it is fundamental that the only solution is one made by Syrians, it is unrealistic to exclude the current Syrian regime from these talks. The fact that they have survived the violence of the past eighteen months and still have the support of the military, as well as the merchant and professional classes of the main cities, demonstrates that they are not without significant popular backing.  In February the Syrian government held a referendum on a new constitution leading to greater democracy and multi-party government but it was boycoted by the opposition and rejected by the Western powers. There is a peaceful opposition in Syrian society but its voice is being rejected by the violent armed opposition backed by external interests and Islamic extremists, who seek to control or destroy Syria for their own ends.

We urge the British government:

(1) to work towards achieving a cease-fire by both government and opposition forces

(2) to continue to work for dialogue and reconciliation in Syria involving both government and opposition forces

(3) to respect the sovereignty of Syria and the principle of non-interference in their domestic affairs.

(4) to cease offering any assistance whatsoever to opposition forces

(5) to continue to offer humanitarian aid to all who have suffered in the present conflict

(6) to ensure the safeguarding of all Christian minorities in Syria and that they have a voice in the process of reconciliation which must proceed an end to conflict.

Yours sincerely,

+ Seraphim

Abba Seraphim

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