In the wake of allegations that chemical weapons were used outside the Syrian city of Damascus, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations offices in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, cautioned against rushing to judgment before all evidence has been gathered.
Speaking with Vatican Radio, Archbishop Tomasi said, “We must not rush to judgment without having sufficient evidence,” and that “the international community, through the U.N. observers who are already present in Syria, can shed light on this new tragedy.”
The archbishop went on to speak on the importance of dialogue, rather than violence, is confronting the conflict.
“As the Holy Father already has underlined,” he said, “violence will not bring a solution and, therefore, a dialogue must begin so that we can arrive at Geneva II (Middle East peace conference on Syria), where representatives of all parts of Syrian society can be present, explain their thinking and try to create some kind of transitional government.”
Hundreds of people, including children, were allegedly killed Aug. 21 by an assault that opposition groups claim was made by government forces. The reports coincide with a visit from U.N. weapons inspectors to Syria who have come to investigate claims of chemical weapons having been used in the country over the course of the two-year conflict. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is calling for a “thorough investigation” into the alleged attack. Meanwhile, various details that have emerged from the alleged attack, including videos circulating online, have not been verified.
In June, the U.N. announced that at least 100,000 had died in the conflict, while millions have fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries. Today, the U.N.’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and its children’s fund, UNICEF, announced that the number of child refugees has reached the one million mark.
John Newton is the press officer for the Catholic humanitarian agency, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). He spoke with ZENIT about the latest developments in the Syrian conflict:
ZENIT: Archbishop Tomasi spoke regarding the reports that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Specific points included the need for caution in giving credence to reports, and how countries should seek dialogue and peace. Could you share your thoughts on this statement, in light of the information that ACN continues to receive out of Syria?
Newton: I would begin by agreeing with Archbishop Tomasi’s words that: “We must not rush to judgment without having sufficient evidence.” With the details of exactly what happened in Damascus on Aug. 21 and who is responsible still unclear, it is only prudent not to jump to any conclusions. Only yesterday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “At this time, right now, we are unable to conclusively determine CW [ie chemical weapon] use” adding that they were “doing everything possible within our power to nail down the facts”. Until the facts are nailed down, as Ms Psaki put it, speculation only inflames passions and does not help to move the peace process forward.
In the cases of chemical-weapon attacks, facts are sparse. If we cast our minds back to the first attacks – when rockets were fired at Khan al-Assal on March 19th – the Syrian state media, who first reported the events, accused the opposition and the opposition accused the army. The media throughout the world debated who may have been responsible, with different commentators coming to different conclusions, but while such speculations make good copy they don’t help to get closer to the truth. This time the report comes from the opposition and again both sides are denying responsibility for the attack. Again it is not possible to independently verify these events, even the numbers killed are disputed – and certainly we’ve received no information from our contacts in Syria that would cast any light on these events either way.
Archbishop Tomasi is right, what we need to advance the peace process is dialogue rather than speculation. Speculation does not engender a climate which brings us closer to the Geneva II – the UN backed conference designed to resolve the conflict. Pope Francis said on the morning of the day that the attacks took place: “All the wars, all the strife, all the unsolved problems over which we clash are due to the lack of dialogue”. Only dialogue can resolve a situation which is making life misery for so many innocent people in Syria.
ZENIT: Turning to Christian communities in Syria: what are some of the ongoing challenges for Christians in the region as a result of the conflict?
Newton: For those who remain in the country life is extremely hard. A report ACN received from a priest ministering in Homs, in the west of the country, described some of the daily challenges Christians face. One of the biggest problems they face is that normal life has all but ceased: factories have closed and most businesses have shut – and without jobs there is little or no money for food, medicine, or rent. It seems almost surreal to me that in the middle of a conflict like this people would still be demanding rent, but they are and it has to be paid.
Then, of course, Christians get caught up in the fighting. As Patriarch Gregorios III, the Head of the Melkite Church that has its headquarters in Syria, said: “There is no safe place left in Syria. You may think that it is safe here or unsafe there, but at any moment, you may be killed by a bomb, missile or bullet, not to mention being kidnapped or taken hostage for ransom, or murdered… Chaos threatens everyone, everywhere, at every moment.”
Christians are also being targeted by radical jihadists within the opposition forces. Christians in Homs experienced that last March, when it was estimated that some 90% of the faithful fled the city. One report we received from a priest working with displaced families who had fled was that prior to the exodus members of the Faruq Brigade – which is part of the Free Syrian Army – went door to door in two neighbourhoods of Homs, demanding that all Christians leave. There are similar stories from other parts of the country, and only earlier this month it was reported that at least a third of Christians in north-eastern Syria had left their homes. Again there are reports that the faithful in Hasakah Province were targeted by radical Islamist elements among the opposition forces.
Now in all these cases it’s hard to determine to what degree Christians fled because of the general fighting and to what degree it was because of Islamic fundamentalists, but we can say that Christian communities in many parts of Syria are living with the fear of violence from extremists hanging over them.
ZENIT: Is it possible that this conflict could affect the future of Christianity in Syria?
Newton: Patriarch Gregorios III put the problem in a wider perspective, pointing out that the future of all the Middle East’s Christians is closely bound up with the fate of Syria’s Christian communities. He said: “Many Christians from Lebanon fled to Syria between 1975 and 1992 and again in 2006. Similarly, the majority of Iraq’s Christians fled to Syria, where many still are.”
At ACN we are very aware of the scale of Christians from Iraq who sought refuge in Syria. In Aleppo before the conflict broke out the charity was providing help for Chaldean Christian refugees including basic supplies like food and clothing, catechetical formation for 600 children and medical care for those with chronic conditions. Now many of those Christians who fled Iraq have had to flee Syria as well. It’s part of a process of hemorrhaging which could see the Christian presence in the region substantially reduced.
If Christianity is to have a future in the region we need to pray for Syria, to pray for an end to the conflict and pray for a start to dialogue and peace.