Patriarch Gregory III meets President Van Rompuy (Image: © Conseil de l’Union Européenne).
Sending “more weapons to Syria will mean more widows and orphans”, according to the head of an ancient Middle Eastern Church, who has made a passionate appeal for peace to the President of the EU. On a visit to Brussels, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III met EU politicians including EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and warned of the dangers of pouring more arms into a conflict which has already claimed at least 90,000 lives and led to more than three million people fleeing their homes.
The Patriarch of Antioch and the Whole East, who was heading a delegation including staff from Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, warned: “Many more families will flee ahead of the violence; they are not going to wait for the bullets to reach them.”
The delegation said that the already difficult situation is about to become worse following the 23 June announcement by the ‘Friends of Syria’ – which includes the UK, US, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – to arm the rebels, compounded by the ongoing delays in the start of international peace talks.
The patriarch added: “It is in the interest of Syria, the Middle East and Europe not to give more weapons to Syria.
“Only with a negotiated political solution, where the contribution of Christians as honest brokers is recognised, will peace in the region once again reign and so convince Syrians to stay and rebuild the country anew.”
The Patriarch added: “The Christian contribution over the centuries in economic and social terms and our tradition of conviviality serves as an authentic bridge between the different Muslim denominations. We remain independent, not taking sides with anyone in this conflict but rather seeking peace for all”
The Patriarch was accompanied by the Archbishop Issam John Darwish of Zahle, Ferzol and the Bekaa (Lebanon), and one of the last priests remaining in Homs (Syria), Fr. Ziad Hilal SJ, as well as members of Aid to the Church in Need.
Fr Hilal said: “They think that in giving weapons to the opposition, they will level the battle field but this is an illusion, the other side has supporters too. There will never be a balance, only escalation. The region is already awash with arms. Even children carry weapons. If they do not start negotiations immediately in Geneva II [the proposed peace conference], the massacres and the waves of displaced will come.”
Fr Hilal is providing basic education for almost 6,000 children of all ages and religious backgrounds, as well as emergency help for the displaced.
He said: “In working with children we hope to give an example of reconciliation to the adults, as well as prepare for a future peace in Syria. Shia, Sunni, Alawite and Christians come to our centres and learn to trust one another again”.
He is also providing basic food, shelter and medicine for more than 30,000 people who have fled conflict. In June, Aid to the Church in Need provided an aid package of £25,450 for this project in addition to £42,450 given last year.
The charity has given more than one million Euros in support to Syria since the start of the conflict, including help for displaced families and refugees.
Since the beginning of hostilities in 2011, more than 100,000 Syrians have fled across the border seeking help from the Church in Lebanon.
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley the Catholic Church is caring for 1,500 families – of between seven and 10 members each – which are avoiding UNHCR refugee camps.
Archbishop Darwish said: “Christians do not enter the refugee camps of the United Nations. They, and also Muslim refugees who are afraid of possible retribution after the war, prefer to knock at our doors, but that makes them ineligible for UN help”.
The Church is providing emergency relief including health care, but is stretched to its limits despite aid from international Catholic organisations.
Archbishop Darwish stressed the desire of the refugees to return to their homes as soon as possible, adding that the day after the liberation of Qusayr hundreds of families left in order to check the state of their properties there.
He said: “I can assure you, if we can help them to start rebuilding their homes, they will have the city up and running very soon. The problem is that they have been returning to the shells of their homes with no vision of reconstruction, and so they come back to the camps with the risk that they become more permanent refugees”.
EU members thanked the delegation for its non-partisan approach to seeking a peaceful solution and assured them that they would pursue a strategy privileging diplomatic solutions to this crisis.
Joseph Daul, the President of the European Christian Democratic party said: “We Europeans tend to take peace for granted, thank you for reminding us that we have to work for it every single day”.
The delegation was received at the highest levels of the EU. As well as speaking with EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy they met the cabinet of José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, and the EU Commissioners for Asylum and Humanitarian Aid.