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REPORTAGE FROM SYRIA
from issue no. 02 - 2007

An interview with Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Syro-Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo

«Assad has told us: don’t fear»



Interview with Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim by Gianni Valente


Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, Syro-Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo, is the most enterprising bishop of his Eastern Church, now become a Church of the diaspora. The elderly Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I (who participated as an observer at Vatican II Ecumenical Council) lives close to Damascus. But the majority of his faithful now live in Europe and America.

The Mufti of Aleppo Mahmoud Akkam and the Syro-Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Gregorios

The Mufti of Aleppo Mahmoud Akkam and the Syro-Orthodox Metropolitan Mar Gregorios

The flight from Iraq also involved believers of your Church.
MAR GREGORIOS: One thousand five hundred families of our community found refuge here in Syria. They fled after the episodes of violence that struck our churches and priests. Such as the priest Paulos Eskandar, found beheaded on 11 October last in Mosul after he had been kidnapped and a ransom demand had arrived.
Syria is the first place where Christians take refuge when they are fleeing from the dangers and attacks undergone in their own countries.
MAR GREGORIOS: It may be the mentality, the historical conditions, the role played by the government, but Christians fleeing from difficult situations have always found a different situation here. I remember that some years ago a delegation of Armenians toured the north of the country giving out certificates of esteem and thanks to the people of the region for the way they had welcomed their ancestors fleeing from Turkey.
And yet Syrian policy is always under attack from Western circles. Not least for the role it played in Lebanon.
MAR GREGORIOS: It’s a complicated question. In all the years of Syrian presence in Lebanon there have surely been mistakes. But I don’t believe that the anti-Syrian feeling and arguments are defensible. Above all if the term of comparison is political chaos and civil war.
How did the war in Iraq influence the situation of the Christians in the Middle East?
MAR GREGORIOS: All the wars provoked in this region have had terrible consequences for the Christians here. Fifty percent of the Christians in Iraq have already left the country, the exodus continues and almost none of them will return. The ignorant and the mean-minded say that the Christians are the allies of the “Crusaders” who are attacking us from the West. And we pay. But in our community there is a strong sense that Christianity is not something imported. It did not come here from Rome or from America. Here Saint Paul and other apostles lived and worked, Saint Ephrem, Saint John Damascene. The Christians were here before the Muslims. It is a matter of fact that nobody could deny.
How do you see Bashshar al-Assad’s politics?
MAR GREGORIOS: He and his father have shown sympathy for Christians. Last Easter he came himself to lunch with the patriarchs and the bishops of Syria to give the Christians a word of reassurance, to tell them not to fear this delicate moment. It had never happened before. He always speaks well of Christianity. When he welcomed the Pope to Syria he also said very fine things about Christianity. And he went to the funeral of John Paul II intending also to represent all the Christians of Syria.
According to some observers there is a kind of “alliance” between the Christian minority and the group that holds power, who belong to the Alawite Muslim minority.
MAR GREGORIOS: Our friendship is the same to all. We don’t make distinctions between Alawites, Sunnis, Jews.
The security service keep the activities of the religious leaders under surveillance
MAR GREGORIOS: But that’s true for everybody. And I don’t see it as a scandal. Every religious leader if he goes abroad is asked to tell about his doings when he returns. But we know that the problems arise when one is not clear, sincere, when one is ambiguous. And we have nothing to hide. We are transparent inside and out.
You mentioned the speech made by the Syrian president to John Paul II during his visit to Syria. But what everyone remembers of that speech are the harsh words against Israel…
MAR GREGORIOS: The Israelis are still our adversaries. They are occupying the Heights of Golan. One understands why the president used those tones. When things have changed the words will change also.


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