Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Syria on interfaith relations, foreign fighters and the Israel Palestine conflict
"First we are Syrians and we are citizens like all others; what happens to Muslims happens to Christians. We have had 100,000 victims in the war. How many are Christians? We don't know."
His Beatitude Gregorios III, Patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, is from Darayya, a city close to Damascus where Saint Paul encountered the risen Christ. Until recently, Darayya was home to 200,000 Muslims and 1,500 Christians. His memories of the city before the crisis are of Christians and Muslims celebrating each other's feasts and meeting together in both places of worship.
These days both the mosques and the churches in Darayya have been destroyed in the fighting, and both Muslims and Christians have left the city – "asking about Christians is ok," he tells me, "but you see we are really in the same situation, all of us."
We meet in St. Matthew's Church, Westminster in a small room lined floor to ceiling with books. His Beatitude is wearing a long black robe and has three medals, one in the shape of a cross, draped around his neck. He removes his tall black hat to reveal white hair that matches his beard.
Despite the chaos, he explains, daily life continues in Syria particularly around Damascus. The souqs (markets) are bustling and schools and universities are open most of the time. In the run up to Easter the churches were full. Thousands of people filled the inside, whilst many waited at the door for a chance to get in.
Still, there are daily reminders that the current crisis is never far away. His Beatitude often travels between Beirut and Damascus, passing through up to 15 checkpoints. But "I never cancelled any of my programs to go to Syria. To serve, to visit, to celebrate, to have meetings. To visit the churches and so on," he tells me.
"Jesus said, don't be afraid," he reflects on what it is like to dodge bombs and roadblocks to be with his community. He visits churches hit by bombs and the families of victims whose houses have been destroyed.
Syrian people have mixed feelings, he says; some are courageous, some are afraid, some are weak and some are strong. But there is a strong spirit of solidarity. When somebody dies, everybody visits the house to offer their condolences.
It is often reported that Christians in Syria are being specifically targeted. But according to His Beatitude, everybody is a victim in this tragedy. "First we are Syrians and we are citizens like all others; what happens to Muslims happens to Christians. We have had 100,000 victims in the war. How many are Christians? We don't know."
"I always said, I am not afraid of Muslims. I am afraid of the chaos in the situation; we don't know who is who. As Robert Fisk said, it is a war of lies and hypocrisy and manipulation. Targeted not, but let us say a victim of the situation. Because we are vulnerable, we are the most vulnerable part of the society because of our number, we have no weapons, we don't belong to a special group, we are just citizens."
Sometimes fighters do target Christians, he says, but this is just to give the impression to the outside world that the conflict is a sectarian war. The tragedy, says His Beatitude, and the killing and torture taking place is not the real Syria, the multi-faith community as it has been for hundreds of years. It is the work of armed fighters, estimated to be 2,000, entering the country from outside.
"It's something that is not in our tradition. We never had these problems with our neighbours, Muslims, Christians and so on. That is important. So the war is not a Syrian war, not a Christian Muslim war. Not even a Syrian war. A war imposed, more or less, with more foreign fighters than inside fighters."
Not content with simply pitting Muslims against Christians, others are keen to place Christians as being with or against Assad. "We like to be independent, that is important - the Christians, all of them. We like to be really independent, we don't like to be put, to be pushed, on one or the other side," he says.
"I never ask my people to be for or against Assad, never. You are free to be what you like. I know some priests, some of our faithful, they are against. On the other hand they are very, very conscientious that there are problems with the whole system in Syria, there are problems like in any society."
"I don't like Europe willing to put us on one side. Let us have our role, our witness - to build bridges, to be for reconciliation. Let us have a beautiful and unique role. This is our salvation; if we can play this positive role I think it is the future for the church. If not, if we are two sectarians on one or other side, it is for us not good for the future."
"Therefore I am preaching to be open for everybody, even for the warriors, the foreigners; I never condemned them. I said maybe you are only an instrument of others and I always preach, never have some kind of hatred in your heart. Don't change your Christian values, remain in your values, even in a crisis. Not just to be afraid, no. This is a chance to keep your values, despite all the difficulties. I think more and more Muslims are appreciating this role."
His Beatitude is keen to talk about the "service of relief and rescue" that the church is playing in Syria. Local Christian leaders are working together with Muslim leaders – again, something not often reported in the media - to bring about reconciliation in certain areas in Syria. As the spiritual father and leader responsible for this reconciliation group (Musalaha,) His Beatitude has worked with activists from different countries, some who are for Assad and some who are against, who make up these local councils.
Alongside this he is working to bring together churches, across the world - Catholic, American, and Lutheran – to create an international campaign to help bring about peace. This peace, he explains, and the war that is raging now is not just about Syria. It is a war influencing and inflaming Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Palestine.
"Nobody here is now thinking about Palestine, about the conflict, Israel Palestine. Nowadays there are two keys for peace, Syria and Israel Palestine. If you go through with a good solution for Syria, you have the second – more international effort to solve Israel Palestine."
Published in Middle East Monitor