One of Syria’s most respected bishops is condemning the violence in Syria but is also defending the Syrian government’s response to the uprising there. He said the insurgents are “fanatics” who seek “destabilization and Islamization.”
“The fanatics speak about freedom and democracy for Syria but this is not their goal,” said Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo. “They want to divide the Arab countries, control them, seize petrol and sell arms.” If President Bashar al-Assad is ousted, he warned, Syria would suffer the problems of Iraq, such as the widespread breakdown of law and order. “We do not want to become like Iraq. We don’t want insecurity and Islamization and (to) have the threat of Islamists coming to power,” the Jesuit bishop told Aid to the Church in Need. “Syria has a secular orientation. There is freedom. We have a lot of positive things in our country.”
The Syrian government has received strong criticism for a hard-line military response to the uprising. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has condemned Syria’s armed response against protestors as “unacceptable.” Protests erupted after the mid-March arrest and torture of 15 youths in the poor southern town of Dara’a. Demonstrations quickly spread across the country.
Armed elements have carried out attacks on security forces, with the government saying hundreds of their forces have been killed. The opposition said that more than 1,300 protesters have been killed. Earlier in June, over 120 servicemen were killed at the predominantly Sunni town of Jisr al-Shughour near the Turkish border. State media blamed unidentified gunmen, while government opponents said troops mutinied after refusing to fire on unarmed demonstrators.
Many Syrians who joined the Sunni Islamist insurgency in Iraq against U.S. forces came from the region. Syria expert Joshua Landis, associate professor of Middle East studies at Oklahoma University, told Reuters that the country is “sliding towards civil war.” The conflict also has provoked worries of sectarian tensions between the Sunni Muslim majority and the minority Alawite sect to which the family of President Assad belongs. The Assad family has held power in Syria for 41 years. One Obama administration official in Washington, speaking anonymously to the New York Times, said that they do not know who the armed groups are, but they are “religiously based, absolutely.”
Vatican Radio director Fr. Federico Lombardi, S.J., has said the situation in Syria is “especially worrisome” because of its “persistent violence” and apparent lack of solutions. In his weekly editorial for Vatican Radio, he asked that all parties reject violence and oppose “the disintegration of Syrian society.” He cited Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the new Syrian Ambassador to the Vatican, in which the Pope called for “true reforms in political, economic and social life” and increased “respect for the truth, for the rights of peoples and communities, of coexistence and reconciliation.”
Fr. Lombardi continued: “It is important to oppose the disintegration of this region and to speak out against the conflicts that force people to flee from one country to another: from Iraq to Syria, from Syria to Turkey … we must convert to dialogue, reconciliation and peace.” For his part, Bishop Audo argued that the government had a right to defend itself, noting that more than 100 police were killed within a few days’ time. He criticized a “war of information” against Syria, calling media reports “unobjective.”
“In some media organizations, such as the BBC and Al Jazeera, there is an orchestration to deform the face of Syria to say the government does not respect human rights and so on,” he said.“Syria must resist – will resist. 80 percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians,” Bishop Audo told Aid to the Church in Need. The situation of Syria’s 1.5 million Christians is not much different than other communities, he said. “We want peace and security ... we do not want war and violence and we very much hope that in the next few weeks the situation will be better.”