As violence and bloodshed continue in Syria, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for peace on Sunday and urged the government to respect “the legitimate aspirations” of its citizens.
The Pope called for “peaceful coexistence to be restored as soon as possible” and for the government to respect the dignity of Syria's citizens “for the benefit of regional stability.”
The pontiff didn't venture into the detail of the conflict, but in recent weeks Syrian church leaders have blamed Islamist street gangs for provoking the government crackdown more than they've criticized President Bashar al-Assad.
According to anti-government protesters, more than 1,650 civilians have been killed since the country's uprising began in March; the government says over 340 soldiers and police officers have lost their lives. On the day the Pope spoke, 38 civilians were killed in the eastern part of the country.
Al-Assad stresses he is defending Syria from marauding Islamist mobs and trying put the country on the path to reform. Some church leaders believe him and claim most Christians do, too.
Speaking in June to Aid to the Church in Need, a church charity, Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo warned that the protesters “speak about freedom and democracy for Syria, but this is not their goal.”
Rather, he said, “they want to divide the Arab countries, control them, seize oil, and sell arms. They seek destabilization and Islamization.” He called on Syria to resist, and expressed confidence that it will. “Eighty percent of the people are behind the government, as are all the Christians," he added.
In comments to an Italian Catholic news agency, Archbishop Gregoire Elias Tabé of Damas didn't hide the fact that he fears Christians will suffer in the event of dramatic changes.
“Presently we are witnessing a major international game against Syria,” he said, as the violence “is predominantly the result of terrorists who have infiltrated from abroad.”
Like Audo, Tabé believes the majority of the population is behind al-Assad. One major concern is that Syria could become another Iraq if al-Assad is overthrown, leading to Christian persecution.
The bishops have also blamed the international media for being one-sided and not providing a balanced picture. Bishop Audo called it a “war of [dis]information against Syria” and that the international reports are not objective. “We must defend the truth, both as Syrians and as Christians,” he said. (Videos are also currently circulating on the Internet, sent by a Syrian Christian, showing a gruesome beheading and the discarding of bodies in the Orontes river, purportedly of Syrian soldiers. The email reads: “Street gangs are taking over in Hama, Lattakia and more everyday . . . and the international community wants to condemn Bashar al-Assad?!”)
Yet church leaders are naturally not condoning the government's response, and agree with the Pope. In April, when the uprisings were first taking hold, Audo told me the security forces were right to respond to a month of violent provocation, but that fatally attacking civilians couldn't be justified.
“I think the police have the right to defend themselves, but only to act in self defence, not to attack and kill people,” he said. But truly representative government, he added, “needs time” and every country “has his own way of democracy.”
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