An Anglican colleague of one of our friends, Rev. Andrew Ashdown, recently returned from a visit to Syria. Rev. Ashdown led the first British Christian delegation to Syria since the start of the conflict in 2011 and which saw numerous meetings with local political and religious leaders and Christian communities.
He has written a fascinating account of the visit.
REFLECTIONS ON A VISIT TO SYRIA – Part 3
31 August – 7 September 2016
Formal meetings: Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, Presidential Adviser and Tourism Minister Besher Yazji
Our first day in Syria was taken up in formal meetings. This was not an official delegation and never claimed to be, but it was appropriate and courteous that as the first British group with significant members to visit the country since the start of the conflict, we should respond to official invitations. Meeting with Dr Bouthaina Shaaban, the eloquent Political and Media Adviser to the President, she pointed out that even in the Presidential Office, the diversity of the country is represented, with senior staff coming from Sunni, Shia and Christian communities. She was highly critical of the biased international media representation of realities in Syria (a criticism echoed by everyone we met throughout the country); and asked why the West claims to be fighting terrorism whilst allying with countries who are funding and supporting terrorists. Dr Shaaban acknowledged that there had been mistakes in dealing with political unrest, but like other ordinary citizens we spoke with, she said that the war had stifled the development of the active civil society that was beginning to emerge prior to the conflict. Reforms and the development of democratic processes could only take place in a peaceful context.
We then visited the Minister for Tourism, Besher Yazji. He is a younger man who is passionate about the abundant historical heritage of the country. Immediately prior to the conflict, the government had been doing a huge amount of work to restore monuments and improve the tourist infrastructure in the country – something I witnessed for myself in 2010. He lamented the massive destruction and looting of historical sites, most of which had taken place at the hand of extremist factions whose ideology wishes to obliterate the diverse history, culture and faith of the country. He pointed out that where sites had been liberated from terrorist control, restoration work has already begun (as we saw for ourselves in the restoration of the churches in Maaloula.)
Of course the tourism industry, a major source of income for the country has been devastated by the conflict, with hundreds of hotels and restaurants closed. However, the tourism industry is picking up a little. Pilgrims continue to visit the Shia and Christian shrines in the country, and as the security situation has improved in many of the government-controlled areas of the country, Syrians themselves are wanting to return to places of interest and relaxation that are ‘safe’. Sadly sanctions have deeply affected all the industries and of course with sanctions against Syrian banks the country is mostly operating under a cash economy which is very hard on ordinary people. The Minister said that the concert that was held in the amphitheatre at Palmyra after its liberation, where Syrian soldiers had been executed by terrorists only months before, (and which was cynically condemned in the western media), was a symbol of the new life and hope that will emerge and that will overcome the horrors of extremism. He emphasised that post conflict every effort will be made to restore the ancient sites and that international experts will be welcome to participate in that process.
We spent a most moving day meeting the people of Maaloula, one of the most famous Christian villages in the Middle East, famed for its early Christian shrines, and for being one of few villages in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus is spoken. Occupied by Jabhat Al Nusra and ‘Free Syrian Army’ ‘rebel’ groups in 2013, we met with leaders of the village and villagers, who spoke of the murder and kidnap the terrorists perpetrated against the Christian population, tragically aided by some of the Muslim villagers, and the attempted destruction of the ancient Christian monasteries. Famed for centuries for its religious co-existence, villagers are traumatised by the events. However, there are signs of hope. The restoration of both shrines and homes has been started and is progressing, and about half the original inhabitants have returned to help rebuild the village. The village is strong in its support of the Syrian Government and the Syrian Army, and are dismayed at the international community’s support of the ‘rebels’, whose brutality they have experienced first hand, and whose sectarian extreme Islamist agenda and intentions are proven and explicit.
The monastery of St Sergius in Maaloula was used for months by the terrorists as their headquarters, and was badly vandalised by them. The Church is 3rd Century, and has a unique pre-Christian altar, which they smashed but which has since been repaired. The numerous historic and valuable icons that adorned the Church were either stolen or destroyed. After visiting the monastery, we walked down the famous gorge to the Convent of St Thekla, a disciple of St Paul. Here, the terrorists burned the Church and the cave shrine where St. Thekla is buried.
Here too, the government is assisting the work of restoration.
A couple of stories…pictured first [a PDF of the report with photographs is available on request] the only pharmacy in Maaloula, which was destroyed by the ‘rebels’ and has recently been reopened. Due to sanctions, only the most basic drugs are available, and those are expensive. Syria used to have a major factory producing pharmaceutical drugs, but it has been destroyed and neither the equipment to produce the drugs or the raw materials to make them are allowed into the country due to sanctions.
Secondly, a picture of Antionette in the Cave in her home where she was shot and seriously injured when ‘rebels’ came into the house and shot dead her brother and two other male relatives when they refused to renounce Christianity. The residents said that the FSA were assisting the attackers. Do we really think these ‘moderates’ will bring ‘democracy’ to the country?
Meeting with the Grand Mufti
It is always a joy to meet with the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Hassoun. A Sunni Muslim scholar of renown and a spiritual leader of stature. Yet he is vilified for two reasons: firstly that he is an appointee of the government (as all Grand Muftis in the region are); and secondly because of his liberal views towards people of other faiths. The Mufti is passionate about the importance of Syria’s religious diversity and he believes in the theological as well as political significance of the religious minorities. A few years ago he was cynically accused of ‘threatening’ Europe with suicide bombers. This is very far from his character and he has explained time and again that his words were not a threat, but rather a warning of what would happen if Europe continued with its policies. Of course his prophetic prediction has come true. The Mufti told us: “Christ summarised his teaching in ‘God is love’. Any religion not based on love is made by man…God is not in temples, churches or mosques, but in human hearts.” He lamented the rise in Islamic extremism and said we should be wary of its growth in the UK. He could not understand why our Government allies with the country where the worst kind of extremist ideology is nurtured and supported. Dr.Hassoun told us that after his son was murdered by ‘rebels’, he publicly forgave them and asked them to talk to him. The reply they sent was that they would kill him too. He was very clear that terrorism has been imported into Syria by many countries. Of the government he said: “I do not stand against Assad and his government because we are secularists who separate religion from politics. It shouldn’t be for others to tell us what to do. We should decide our own future.” He continued: “If there is a God, we will be asked one question at the day of judgement: Did you love one another? As a Muslim I love Jesus and I call you brothers. Please let us stop fighting. Let’s give our children the flower of love, not the seeds of hatred, or they will ask us; ‘ why didn’t you teach us to love?'”
Meeting with Syrian Orthodox Patriarch. His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem
It was a joy and a privilege to meet the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Syria, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem, and also with him the Bishop of Hassakeh. As we gathered at the Patriarchate, a wedding was taking place in the Church and in a hall next door a family were receiving condolences on the death and funeral of their mother in a terrorist attack in Hassakeh eight days previously. The son of the deceased came in to meet us. Visibly distressed he told us how when terrorists were bombing the town, his parents had hid in a basement but a rocket had landed above them filling their basement with flames and smoke. The mother had 60% burns and all the flesh burned from her legs. His father had 50% burns and was still comatose. They were transferred by military helicopter to a hospital in Damascus but his mother died a few days later.
As he spoke, children were playing in a neighbouring Hall. The Patriarch commented on the cycle of life and death: a Wedding; children playing; a funeral all surrounding us. He said: “Five years ago Syria was not like this. We are a pluralistic society with freedom of religion. Do you think Saudi or Qatar will bring us ‘democracy’? Is it ‘democracy’ that the international community do not allow us to choose our own leader and want to impose another? If the regime is toppled it will be the mullahs ruling like Iran or Egypt. There is no secular opposition; any ‘moderate’ group will only be used by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bashar may be a dictator but he is secular. Christians in this country are siding with those who are defending them. We do not support Bashar as a person but as a representative of the government that is defending us. You say Christians are supporting the regime. But I am not ashamed to support the government that is protecting us, whilst western policies are helping to empty the region of Christians.”
His message to the Churches in Europe was this: “We greatly appreciate you coming here to see us. My message to our Christian brothers and sisters is: ‘please try to understand and come and see for yourselves’. We want to be helped to stay here, not to leave. We want our Churches to have a better life. we want as Syrians to be able to choose our own life and our own future. I hope we will see churches in the West come to visit, and especially the World Council of Churches who haven’t even asked if we are OK. Please support us. God bless you all.”
And to conclude with a comment from myself: Everywhere we went in Syria, everyone expressed such gratitude for our going to visit and listen; especially the Christian communities in Damascus, Maaloula and Aleppo. Why is it that I am one of just a handful of Christian leaders to have made a Pastoral visit to the country, and why is it that the Christian leadership in this country are so profoundly critical of that engagement? Would Jesus stay silent? Would he follow the politically expedient path? If I believed he would, I would not be a priest.