Syrian Bishop Urges Pope Francis to Raise Arms Supply Issue in Turkey

DUBLIN (CNS) — The president of Caritas in Syria has appealed to Pope Francis to use his 28-30 November trip to Turkey to raise the issue of the ongoing supply of arms being sent across the Turkish border to rebel factions in northern Syria.

Speaking to Catholic News Service in Dublin in late November, Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo warned that there would never be a solution to the Syrian conflict through military force, as almost four years of violence has shown.

Almost 200,000 people are estimated to have died so far in the Syrian conflict. According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, 9.3 million people in Syria need assistance. There are 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians and a further 2.5 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.

“Help us realize peace in Syria. Everybody is losing in this war, but everybody will win with peace and reconciliation. Help us find again the beauty of coexistence,” the bishop pleaded.

The 68-year-old prelate was born and continues to live in Aleppo, which is located just 25 miles from the Turkish border.

The bishop, like many in Syria, believes the U.S., Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran must stop selling arms to the various factions involved in the conflict.

He warned that failure to promote peace and reconciliation could result in the conflict ending on the doorstep of the countries of the West.

Aleppo was once a thriving metropolis and one of the most religiously diverse centers in the region. However, extensive bombing and brutal street-to-street fighting between the various rebels groups and government forces of the Assad regime have left it a shell of its former self.

“With the war we have lost everything. Death has become something normal — there is no value on human life,” Bishop Audo explained. The city has witnessed more than 3,000 deaths since January.

“Poverty is everywhere, there is no electricity, no water and no work. Even the middle class is poor in Aleppo. Doctors and engineers come to me to ask for a basket of food. Now even seeing an apple is something very special,” Bishop Audo said.

Aleppo’s pre conflict Christian population was 150,000 across 11 communities.

“We were six Catholic bishops, three Orthodox bishops, and two Protestant denominations — Arabic and Armenian. We all had our areas. But all this is destroyed now. More than half of the Christian population has left Aleppo.”

“It is especially sad for us to see the young people leaving Syria and going to Europe, the U.S., Canada and Australia. They cannot stay with the insecurity, the economic crisis and no work. Everybody has become poor. If we don’t have peace all the Christians will leave. This is the challenge,” he warned.

Asked if the roots of the conflict are religious, Bishop Audo told CNS, “a lot of terrorists are using the name of religion.” He cited the influence of Saudi Arabia and Sunni petro dollars on the one hand and Iranian Shiites on the other who are contesting the leadership of the Arab and Muslim world.

“So this is religious if you want to call it religious — but religious which is ideological and political. In Islam it is all mixed together, they don’t differentiate between religion and politics as the secular societies of Europe do. We have the same problem inside Syria,” he explained.

He added that 80 percent of the Syrian people are Sunni, and many of the more extreme elements have sought assistance from Saudi Arabia and Turkey in their goal of an Islamic state with Shariah law.

The bishop said the Islamic State group aimed to spread violence and fear and terrify people, but added, “They don’t have any future as an Islamic state.”

Bishop Audo said he sees Christians as mediators between the secular West and the Islamic world.

“I am convinced that Oriental Christianity has a big role to play in Syria and the Middle East because it is able to dialogue with the Islamic world because we have a creed,” he said.

The ongoing exodus of Christians is detrimental not just to Christianity itself, he said, but to those societies in the Middle East that currently tend not to draw a distinction between politics and religion.

Bishop Audo said he believes Christianity has a role to play in providing a more nuanced understanding of citizenship and a greater acceptance of political and religious differences.

Expressing his concern for Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Gregorios Yohanna of Aleppo and Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Paul of Aleppo, who were kidnapped in April 2013 in northern Syria, he said, “I hope that they are not dead, but our situation is so complicated inside Syria — I fear a lot for them.”

For now, Bishop Audo said he plans to remain in Aleppo.

“Aleppo is my town where I was born, where I grew up and studied. All my family is from Aleppo. Several times I’ve been asked when I will leave Aleppo. I won’t leave Aleppo — it is my country. Here I live and here I die with my people,” he said.

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