By Benjamin Mann and Alan Holdren
Western military aid to Syrian rebels could prove disastrous for the country, according to the Damascus-based head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.
“It is time now to have some accord,” Patriarch Gregorios III told CNA on March 15, “and not to arm the opposition, not to attack the regime.”
There is a window of opportunity, he said, to “call both sides” to negotiate and prevent a civil war. But if this opportunity passes, “it will be more difficult because the opposition will be united, maybe more armed, and then more blood. Then it is finished.”
“In order to avoid this very, very sorrowful, very dark end, let us go the way of concord, of dialogue.”
The Eastern Catholic leader spoke to CNA shortly after he met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, to discuss the Church’s prospects in the midst of a conflict that is drawing worldwide attention.
That same day, the Patriarch confirmed that Pope Benedict would be visiting Lebanon from Sept. 14-16, with the possibility of a stop in Syria “if the situation improves.”
Syrian Christians and other religious minorities are concerned about what the future may hold, if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad collapses. The worst-case scenario is a power struggle between different Muslim groups, as has occurred in Iraq.
But Patriarch Gregorios believes there are alternatives to a sudden regime change that could plunge the country into chaos. He is also convinced that the Church can help the cause of peace in the “shaken Arab world” at large.
“I am very convinced that all Syrians can go on a new way together. It is my vision as a Christian. And my hope is that this vision can also be taken into consideration by my partners in Europe.”
In his own comments on the Syrian situation, Pope Benedict has favored a path of negotiation and dialogue between the regime and its opponents. Patriarch Gregorios said the Pope was “very attentive” to the vision he outlined, for Christians “to be instruments of peace in the Middle East.”
“Unless we come to a calm, we cannot have a real ‘spring,’” said the patriarch. He wants to see the Arab world united and peaceful, not divided along the fault-lines of religious identity and political agendas.
During 2011, Patriarch Gregorios called on Western leaders not to support the revolutions taking place in several Arab countries. Instead, he urged them to back gradual reforms and changes, in order to avoid destabilizing complex and sometimes volatile situations.
In Thursday’s interview, he stressed Western countries’ duty to help Syria in a responsible and peaceful way. What is needed, he said, is not arms and incitement, but “dialogue, not only between Syrians and Syrians, but a call to dialogue in the Arab world, a call to unity in the Arab world.”
He also cautioned Western observers of the Syrian conflict against developing a distorted idea of what is happening in his country.
“We have much disinformation, misinformation and manipulation,” he noted. “In Damascus, I really live in peace, (with) schools, churches, businesses and so on. The suburbs are sometimes calm, sometimes not. And there are some times when it is very dangerous, other times when it is not.”
During the March 15 press conference at the Melkite headquarters in Rome, he indicated that some Western media outlets should scrutinize their sources more carefully.
“I have first-hand information,” he told reporters, contrasting this with “information from the television.”
“My best friend, a Maronite bishop named Paul Zayah, has a nephew who lives in Dubai. Walking in the street on his way to work, he hears behind him a person who picks up his cellphone and says, ‘I’m in Homs now. I can see how the army of the regime is attacking the houses, women, mothers and children.’”
“That’s ‘news’ from a ‘primary source,’ fresh from the town of ‘Homs,’ – but he was in Dubai,” the Melkite patriarch said. “And this goes on and on.”