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.
On 26 April, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, dined with Abba Seraphim in London. Mar Gregorios had recently attended a meeting of politicians and other leaders in Liechtenstein to explore ways of resolving the problems in Syria. As a spokesman of the Syriac Orthodox Church who has long worked for good inter-communal relations, he is anxious to explore all peaceful options. Both hierarchs, who have been friends for a nmber of years, were able to share their insights into current political and religious developments in the Middle East as well as discussing issues of common interest, including research into church history.
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