Home > Archives > 09 - 2011 > A spring full of enigmas
from issue no. 09 - 2011

A spring full of enigmas

The alarm for the fate of the Christians.

The conflict between power groups that risks degenerating into civil war.

The opportunities lost by the Arab leaders and the self-interested interventions of western powers. An interview with Grégoire III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites, on all the unknowns besetting the Middle East

Interview with Grégoire III Laham by Gianni Valente

Grégoire III Laham, Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites, has his habitual residence in the heart of old Damascus, only a few yards from the place where St Paul was baptized by Ananias. It is a unique vantage point for a bishop to decipher what’s going on in Syria.

His Beatitude is not by nature a man to remain quiet and silent in the face of the troubles that are plaguing the lives of his Middle Eastern brothers, the Christians first of all. Already last March he summoned fifteen Western and Arab ambassadors resident in Damascus to the headquarters of the Patriarchate: an open consultation to find together the most far-seeing contribution that the international community could provide for overcoming the conflict in Syria and avoiding its degenerating into civil war. Then in April Grégoire gathered ideas and suggestions that had emerged in that colloquium and set them out in a document, immediately sent to all Heads of State in the area.

30Days met the Patriarch of the Greek-Melkites in Munich, where Grégoire III was taking part in the twenty-fifth International Meeting of Prayer for Peace convened in the Bavarian capital by the Community of Sant’Egidio.


The Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites, Grégoire III Laham, at the twenty-fifth International Meeting of Prayer for Peace held last September in Munich by the Community of Sant’Egidio [© Tino Veneziano]

The Patriarch of Antioch of the Greek-Melkites, Grégoire III Laham, at the twenty-fifth International Meeting of Prayer for Peace held last September in Munich by the Community of Sant’Egidio [© Tino Veneziano]

Alarm seems to be growing among the leaders of Christian Churches in the Middle East about the possible consequences of the so-called Arab spring.

GRÉGOIRE III LAHAM: Please, let’s not confuse the issues linked to the revolutions in these months with those related to relations between Christians and Muslims. The one opened by the revolutions is a new scenario for the Middle East, and is rather a question of power. And in contexts such as Syria the religious implications mainly affect relations among Muslims. Christians are not in themselves a target. But if a situation of chaos, instability and conflict for power endures, things will get worse for the Christians. In the Middle East it’s always been so. In situations of chaos and bloody revolutions Christians are the first to pay, always and everywhere. “The Iraq experiment” has cost a great deal to the little flock of Christians in that country.

What have you managed to understand of the situation in Syria?

The only clear thing is that unlike other places the upheavals did not arise out of economic and social unrest. In Syria a certain development in agriculture, industry, road building had already begun in the last years of power of Assad’s father. There was an education and health system that guaranteed everyone literacy and medical care at least. One can’t realistically say that the revolution is being made by the poor.

So what happened?

As I see it the root of the protest is political, with some religious implications. In the Ba’ath Party that rules the country all the levers of power are in the hands of the Alawite Muslim minority. The Sunnis, though they occupy eighty percent of the posts in the state bureaucracy, do not control the key posts.

In the Western media everything is reported in “black and white” as a battle for freedom against a dictatorial regime.

There is no doubt a general desire for greater political freedom. But there’s also the in-fighting between groups for control of the situation. And in this money also plays its part.

What do you mean? Who is using money?

Let me tell you an episode. There was a woman who was a cleaner at the home of an elderly lady of my acquaintance. At a certain point, she ceased to appear. The old lady then called her: my dear, why do you no longer come to my place? And she replied: Madam, I go out every day to protest for a half-hour, and in three days I’ve made more than what you give me for a month... In Derhaia also someone I know told me of young people going out to demonstrate for half an hour, with cameras and camcorders, and then returning home. In short, there is something strange, enigmatic.

Do you, too, Beatitude, think there’s a conspiracy?

It’s not a matter of dragging in conspiracies. But certainly there is manipulation and aspects that remain enigmatic. All revolutions in the Arab world have these elements. For forty years the regimes of Mubarak and the other were allies recognized by the democratic West, and then overnight, as if by magic, they’ve become dictators... There is something artificial. I’ve always hoped in a process of democratic development involving institutions, universities and cultural centers, the nascent professional organizations, the men of religion. Only similar development, which includes cultural data and spreads awareness of the rights of the individual, can really lead to the full development of democratic structures. Instead, in the rapid change we’re facing, something indecipherable remains in the background. The Arab countries are not prepared for a lightning installation of European models of democracy. And certain aspects have raised fears that the riots will take us backward.

A protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad in Talbiseh, in the province of Homs, Syria, on 27 May 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

A protest against Syrian President Bashar Assad in Talbiseh, in the province of Homs, Syria, on 27 May 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPresse]

Yet in recent years the Syrian leadership has aimed at showing the world an innovative and reformist face, at showing itself willing to support and encourage the economic and social advancement taking place in the country. Why then has the only response been that of repression?

When the upheavals started in Tunisia and Egypt, there should have been a more determined choice for openness. That went missing. The logic and mechanisms of the security apparatus prevailed. Now things have degenerated and will not recover from one moment to the next. On the one side and the other there are those who think now only of prevailing, of having everything in their control, and they aren’t looking for dialogue and compromise solutions. Nobody wants to listen to the other’s arguments. There’s no hope except in help from outside. Inside, everything seems to press forward under the banner of the formula mors tua, vita mea.

Do you hope for international intervention, even a military one? Syria, like Libya?

I don’t think they’ll do it. Europe itself seems to have no clear stance on the situation in Syria. Certainly one can’t wish for military intervention. Even the weapon of sanctions, proposed and supported by many Western countries, doesn’t seem appropriate, when one remembers that no sanction has ever been put into effect against Israeli policies. Some other type of interference is needed. External pressure, of a diplomatic nature, to get government and opposition on the path of negotiations also through confidential means of communication. And help to restart the processes of change that had already begun.

Who should work in this direction?

Turkey could have a role. But even the so-called Quartet [US, EU, Russia and UN, ed] which is following the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. One cannot separate what is happening in Syria and throughout the Arab world from the perspective of a possible and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

You mention Turkey. Many observers see in Erdogan’s political experiment a model of reconciliation between Islam and democracy that could be taken up in the Arab countries also.

It seems unlikely to me that the Arabs might follow examples proposed by those who at the time of the Ottoman Empire tried to wipe out the Arab language, literature and civilization. The fact remains that so far there has not been a truly worthy and noble Arab position, that could match up to events. I don’t understand why the Arab countries have not yet convened a summit to deal with these issues and find common solutions, in order not to compromise the future. If we Arabs, and not the others, do not get together to meet the new situation that opened with the uprisings and their tragic developments, and if we do not take responsibility together, with the help of the international community, the future of the Arab world is likely to become dark. The various rebellions in the Arab world may find themselves up against each other. And the Arab world is in danger of crumbling into a series of tiny States in sectarian struggle amongst themselves.

What will decide the result? Is there a way out?

I truly hope that a new Charter of Laws and Rights suited to the modern Arab world will be reached. But that can only happen through gradual processes, with an evolution that enables growth step by step. Instead, the revolutions are opening fresh wounds that then heal with difficulty. In short, the keywords should be evolution and maturing, and not revolution. In this perspective, Christians also could become more decisive operators of change.

According to some observers Christians should feel immediate sympathy for upheavals that put authoritarian regimes into crisis and look forward to the advent of Western-style democratic systems in the Middle East also.

In general, Christians in Syria know that they can go ahead with the regime, and perhaps participate in the development of a more democratic regime. Whereas they are afraid of chaos. They are afraid of manipulation from outside that might undermine the traditional coexistence with their Muslim fellow citizens. There have been some disturbing cases in the district of Homs, with provocateurs making appeals from the mosque inciting people to besiege and drive out Christians. Some Muslim neighbors of Christian families have fled for fear of being involved in an attack. In these cases of immediate danger one can also see the intention to widen the chaos and use the ‘screen’ of the Islamic-Christian conflict to cover something else. Putting the Christians in the middle to increase the tension and alarm. The provocateurs were strangers, people from outside, not fellow villagers. Near Homs also shops and homes of Christians have been burned. We must pray, and stay alert, so as not to be afraid in the face of provocations.

Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Cairo, 14 September 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPress]

Pope Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, with the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Cairo, 14 September 2011 [© Associated Press/LaPress]

President Assad continues to point to the fundamentalists and mercenaries as the real inciters of the uprisings against the regime. In recent years, State laws and regulations have been aimed at curbing the spread of ‘extremist ideas’. Hasn’t that repression had the opposite effect, perhaps?

Some of those measures, such as the ban on teachers wearing the full veil in schools, in fact were not widely applied. Of course, the Islamists want to increase their influence. But I remain convinced that Syria is not a fertile ground for their expansion strategies. Syria had a secular history even before the coming to power of the Ba’ath Party. I don’t see a great desire in Syrian society for the constraints that the fundamentalists seek to impose on society. The Islamic religious leaders are tied to the government, in fact they act as religious officials. The Islamic insurgents are active outside the central official apparatus.

What do you think of the attitude of the Holy See towards the upheavals of various sorts which have taken place in Arab countries in 2011 ?

Following the events in Egypt, the Holy See has avoided multiplying its comments. The Pope has spoken well. Perhaps, on some occasions, the Vatican media reports have seemed to jump a little too uncritically on the bandwagon of networks oriented like Al Jazeera. If I may add a personal note, I’d like to hear more participation and closeness from the national Churches, and in particular from European episcopates. They could try to set in place initiatives to encourage dialogue.

One last question: according to some people, what is happening today in the Middle East has many similarities to what happened in 1989 in the countries of Eastern Europe. Do you agree?

No. The religious and socio-cultural and historico-political situation is quite different here. It’s a totally unfitting comparison. Or maybe it’s just misleading propaganda.

Italiano Español Français Deutsch Português