Our Peace Delegation spent five days with the people of Syria, visiting the cities of Damascus, Homs, Tartus, Qara, and Maaloula.
Our Delegation was led by Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in l976, for her work in helping end the violent ethnic/political conflict in Northern Ireland.
The purpose of our visit was to meet and listen to the people on the ground and see the situation for ourselves. The invitation was from the Melkite Greek Church Patriarch Gregorious III and the Church acted as our hosts. We also received an invitation from Mother Agnes Mariam, the Superior of St. James’ the Mutilated Monastery, and Sheikh Sharif al Martini, the Senior Leader of the Al Nu’aim Tribe in Aleppo and a member of the Syrian League of the United Nations in Syria, and an active member of the National Reconciliation Initiative.
During the visit, we met hundreds of people, local and national political leaders, government and opposition figures, local and national Muslim and Christian leaders, members of reconciliation committees, and internally displaced refugees. We also met numerous people on the streets of towns and cities – Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawite – all of whom feel that their voices are ignored and under-represented in the West.
Our Delegation were very thankful to our host Patriarch Gregorios III Latham, and his very good friend Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. We were received most graciously by both clerics and their stories and insights helped our Delegation get a deeper and new perspective on Syria and the ongoing violent conflict inflicted on the Syrian people. Patriarch Latham explained that Syrian Muslims and Christians not only dialogue with each other but their roots are inter-twined with each other as they have lived together over l436 years. He believes that Syrians can offer something the West urgently needs: ‘The whole world is losing a model of people living together. We Muslims and Christians have been living together over l436 years without wars, despite disagreements and conflicts…..over the years peace and co-existence have outweighed controversy’. In Qara, Christians and Muslims live peacefully side by side, and Muslims helped to rebuild the churches after the occupation by Daesh. In Syria we saw that Christians and Muslim relationships can be more than mutual tolerance, they can be deeply loving. We learned too that Syrians do not describe themselves as Sunni, Shia, Christian, Alawite but first and foremost they are Syrian and proud of their Secular State which is made up of so many diverse religions and traditions. We experienced this in the village of Qara, when we visited the Mayor and City Councilors, Red Crescent, Church and Mosque, and people who witnessed to the co-existence of Muslims and Christians. They told us that the Syrian conflict is not a religious war, or a civil war as portrayed in Western Media. It is a proxy war fuelled by outside intervention and carried out by foreign fighters from over 80 countries and rebels, as was witnessed by their own village which was invaded and partly destroyed by Daesh (IS) fighters.
In Qara they witnessed to the invasion and destruction of their village by Daesh (IS) foreign fundamentalist extremists who killed many people and destroyed homes, church and mosques. It was nearby Qara, in the Monastery the delegation spent 3 nights where only 8 km to the west and 23km to the East, Daesh fighters operated, and our sleep was disturbed each night by artillery and gunfire just fifty yards away, in an exchange between soldiers and Daesh fighters.
To travel in Syria, and listen to the Syrian people is to hear a different narrative from that heard in the West. The Western main stream Media continues to demonize President Bashir Al-Asad- and continue with their policy of Regime Change, as they did in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan. In Syria, we talked to politicians, of all parties, Imams, Christians, the Majors of local towns and people in the streets. Some fervently supported their President. Others were critical, but everyone agreed that at the moment he is the key to Syria’s survival. Even his opponents accept that around 70% of Syrians support Assad. Imposed regime change would bring chaos and a victory for fundamental extremists, undermining Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon and Jordan, as the anarchy of Libya has brought instability to Egypt and Tunisia.
Our delegation learned from the Grand Mufti of Syria, (who is known for his peacemaking and love of Christianity), that he continues to be refused a visa to visit the UK and he appealed to us to help in this regard. He offered to pay his own way in order to be able to visit the UK and other countries to speak about the situation in Syria and encourage peace and reconciliation in solving the crisis. He invited Spiritual Leaders of all faiths to visit Syria to see the situation for themselves. (During our visit the Archbishop of Canterbury supported the UK’s war call to strike Syria, much to our Delegations disappointment when meeting so many Religious leaders in Syria all calling for peace and a nonviolent solution to the Syrian crisis and looking to their Religious/spiritual brothers/sisters around the World, to support them in their call for peace and reconciliation.
We also visited the Christian Town of Maaloula, where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken and it is one of the oldest Christian towns in the Middle East. We visited the Catholic Church of St. George and the priest explained how after their church was burned to the ground by Western backed rebels, and many Christians killed, the people of Qara, carried a table onto the ruins of the Church, and after praying started to rebuild their church and homes. Sadly also in this place some muslim neighbours also destroyed christian neighbours homes and this reminded us all of the complexities of the Syrian conflict, and the need to teach nonviolence and build peace and reconciliation. It also brought us to a deeper awareness of the plight of not only moderate Sunnis from Daish, but the huge nos. of Christians now fleeing from Middle Eastern countries, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, etc., and that if the situation is not stabalized in Syria and the Middle East, there will be few Christians in what is called the cradle of civilization and birth of Christianity and where followers of the three Abrahamic Faiths lived and worked as brothers and sisters. The middle east has already witnessed the tragic and virtual disappearance of Judaism, and this tragedy is now happening at an alarming rate to the Christians of the Levant.
In the old city of Homs, we had a meeting with members of the reconciliation committee, which is led by a priest and a sheikh. Meeting by candlelight because of regular power blackouts, we heard how Christians and Muslims in the town had been instrumental in the rehabilitation of fighters who chose to lay down their arms.
Before leaving Syria on 29th November, 2015 our delegation issued the following call to the International Community, and we reiterate this call in the hope it will help bring closer the day of Peace and Reconciliation for Syria.
What gives us great hope for the future of Syria are elements that still exist in the country after nearly five years of war. These include:
l) The active participation of women in the affairs of the country;
2) the fact that education is greatly valued and so is free;
3) the freedom of religion and the strong cohesion as a result;
4) the respect shown for the two mainstream faiths, namely Islam and Christianity, evidenced by the fact that Eid Festivals as well as Christmas and Easter are all national holidays.
5) the commitment of Syrians to preserving ancient relics and a common heritage they are custodians of.
We call on the International community to protect the territorial integrity of Syria and to respect the fundamental rights of Syria as a Soveriegn State. We deplore any intent to breach the integrity of Syria’s frontiers or to damage the unity and rich diversity of the Syrian people.
We recognize the legitimacy of the aspirations of the Syrian citizens for change, reforms and an end to all violence and we support those working for the implementation of a democratic life that respects and protects the fundamental rights of all citizens and we believe that effective and lasting reforms can only be achieved through nonviolent means.
Our primary appeal is that all countries stop their interference in Syrian affairs, more specifically, that they halt the supply of arms and foreign combatants. If foreign countries agree to stop the influx of arms and fighters, we are confident that Syrians can finds their own solutions to their problems and achieve reconciliation.
We consider it beyond debate that the Syrian people have the right to determine their own government and their own future. Foreign interference is currently preventing the Syrian people from exercising their right to self-determination. We are concerned that such pernicious intervention is tearing apart the fabric of the country itself, with long-term consequences that can only be imagined.
The cautionary examples of Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other countries serve to remind us of the dire consequences of such international folly. This humanitarian crisis is already spilling into neighbouring countries. A collapse of Syrian society will destabalize the entire region. We appeal to the international community that it can learn from history and make better choices in the case of Syria which will spare further tragedy for the courageous Syrian people.
Secondly, we appeal to the international media to stop the flow of misinformation regarding the Syrian conflict. The bias in reporting on Syria means that the vast majority of Syrians who support peaceful change are rarely given a voice in the outside world although their concerns and fears would be shared by many of us. The strength of Syria, as well as its weakness, is its rich mosaic of faiths and ethnic groups. All of these need to be heard and reflected in the international coverage of this crisis. Mendacious reporting can contribute to the tearing apart of the fabric of Syrian Society, just as it would own own, wherever we are.
Thirdly, we urge the international community to review and reconsider the crippling sanctions that are taking such a heavy toll on Syrian people. It is well-known that sanctions led to the death of hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq. As a result of sanctions, people die and communities are impoverished. Like the people of Iraq, the people of Syria have done nothing to deserve such cruel collective punishment.
Fourthly, we urge the international community to take seriously the vast number of refugees and persons who have been internally displaced by this conflict. They need to be given support, a tolerable life and hope if the vast haemorrhage of refugees from Syria is not to destroy the future of this country.
We appeal to the entire religious community to call the faithful to nonviolence and peacemaking, and to reject all forms of violence and discrimination, and we express our admiration and respect for the many Syrian religious leaders who have refused to endorse the use of violence and have dedicated their lives to working for a peaceful solution to this conflict.
In conclusion, we pay tribute to the Patriarch Georgios III Latham and Grand Mufti Ahmad Bedridden Hassoun for their inspirational work for peace and reconciliation for Syria, and the Patriarch for his kind invitation to our delegation. Our delegation would like to express to Mother Agnes Mariam and Sheik Sharif Martini, our deep gratitude and appreciation for their help and assistance to our delegation.
Our delegation agreed that the Syrian people are exhausted and traumatized. Everyone wants an end to the war. Only an inclusive political solution that involves all parties to the conflict, particularly the Syrian President and Government, will solve this conflict and bring Peace and Reconciliation, so urgently needed by the courageous Syrian people.
Signed by all Members of the Delegation as follows:
Mairead Maguire Ireland; Ann Patterson, Ireland ; Rev. Andrew Ashdown, UK; Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, UK; Marco Santi, Belgium; Feroze Mithiborwala, India; Justinya Bajer, Poland; Shrikant Ramdas, India; Sharmine Narwani, Canada/Iran; Maria Monomenova, Russia. (Alan Lonergan, Ireland, was also a delegate but due to unforeseen circumstances was unable to accompany the delegation to Syria. However, he remained in Beirut and acted as Press Officer, on behalf of the Delegation).