Syria – the tangled web

It is quite possible that a large number of Catholics do not know that today is a day of prayer and fasting for the intention of peace in Syria, the Middle East and the world. Pope Francis called for this universal day of prayer and penance (for he has invited people of all faiths and none, across the world, to join the Church in this initiative) last Sunday at the end of his Angelus address. To be fair, notice of less than a week allowed no time for parish bulletins to promote it. However there is the internet, and parishes, newspapers, journals, dioceses and religious orders all have websites they could use to spread the word. Many also have Twitter and Facebook accounts that could spread the word even more quickly.

Sadly the only real noise about it I have heard is from traditionally-minded Catholics. Pope Francis’ liberal fanclub have been strangely unenthusiastic about it. Perhaps the idea of Pope Francis being papal is too confronting for them? Or maybe “fasting” is far too pre-conciliar for them? Certainly even in my own neck of the woods there has been silence on it.

So the burden will probably rest largely on the shoulders of Catholics of a traditional colouring, who take popes seriously even when not to their taste or ideals. I imagine a good number of non-Catholics and people of goodwill will also contribute in what ways they can, if they have heard of the pope’s call.

Yesterday I caught a cold from one of the brethren here, so my fasting today will lose much of its merit as I am not very hungry! Nevertheless, for all Catholics in good health between 18 and 65 years of age, fasting involves eating only one full meal for the day. Many will practise a liquid fast, restricting themselves to beverages and soups. On the level of prayer, something beyond the normal commitment is called for. An extra Rosary perhaps? Going to Saturday Mass (thus not the Vigil for Sunday)? 15 minutes before the Blessed Sacrament? Lighting a candle or two, with accompanying prayers, before our Lady’s statue in a church or chapel? 15 minutes in prayerful reading of the Beatitudes? Prayer before an altar or image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus? Adding the prayer to St Michael to our normal devotions?

The allegation of chemical weapons use in Syria has precipitated an even direr crisis. One Youtube video (and not the only one) asks reasonable questions about the attack. One does not need to become a skeptic about the reality of the attack, but one could quite reasonably ask for the evidence of it to be clearly set out. Likewise, the US and UK governments, almost immediately on the apparent atrocity being reported, determined to strike at the Syrian government. This was before the UN inspectors had even begin their investigation. As yet we have not seen any real evidence of the Syrian government’s responsibility. Assertions of it are not enough. A Carmelite abbess in Syria has some bold words that we would do well to note.

We remember all too well Tony Blair’s and George W Bush’s assertions that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, and on this basis we went to war in Iraq. In the course of this decade-long campaign two things have become starkly clear: no weapons of mass destruction were found, nor evidence of them having existed; Iraq is now an highly unstable country propped up by American money, with its population divided and close to civil war.

So it was with great relief that the UK Parliament actually employed the democratic process so championed by the Western alliance (when it intervenes in non-democratic countries) and voted against British military intervention. There was no clear evidence of guilt and no evidence that intervention would benefit anyone but Al Qaeda and jihadist rebels in Syria.

For, as the video highlights, why would the Syrian government use chemical weapons so near to Damascus, with UN officials in the vicinity, and with the threat of US retaliation regularly and loudly made? It would be tantamount to a death-wish, and Mr Assad shows no sign of being suicidal or hysterical with desperation. The only winners from such an attack would be the rebels. It should be remembered that a number of government troops have defected to the rebels, and could easily have brought with them some chemical weapons. And it equally likely that if the rebels did not deliberately launch an attack, the recent apparent gassing of civilians may be an accident, the result of rebels’ inexperience and ineptitude in handling such dangerous items.

Further complicating matters is the division in the Muslim world. Shia are pitted against Sunni, and nations that stand in either camp intervene in Syria to their own advantage. Saudi Arabia clearly supports the rebels, and Iran clearly supports the government. We have seen the tragic results when a power vacuum is created in a mixed Muslim country like Iraq after Western military intervention. The medicine was worse than the disease it tried to cure.

Likewise there is no one united front covering the Syrian rebels. Some are moderates; some are jihadists intent on erecting a hardline Muslim state in the place of secular Syria; some are Al Qaeda infiltrators seeking to exploit the chaos. Whom would Western intervention actually help? Jihadists and Al Qaeda? How could the Western alliance (what remains of it in this case) guarantee that any arms they sent to the rebels would not fall into militant Muslim hands?

For all their many faults, Assad and Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, were able to maintain stability, balancing Islam with a secular approach that allowed Muslim and Christian minorities to live in relative peace and promoted a good degree of economic prosperity. There may have been little democracy under these regimes, but why do so many assume that Western-style democracy is a panacea for every nation? Some countries are just not ready for it, and it cannot be implanted straight into a nation’s political landscape and be expected to work from the outset. Democracy functions well enough in western nations because we have previously weathered centuries of conflict which prepared the civil soil for democracy. All this, of course, assumes that democracy is really a major issue for the US government, and not merely a propaganda tool. We would be fools indeed to think that the US (and UK) do not have strategic interests dominating their planning; otherwise we would have already intervened in North Korea or Zimbabwe by now. Sadly, they seemed to have learned nothing from Afghanistan and Iraq, and are advocating the same failed approach for Syria.

Christians have perhaps begin the biggest losers in the Syrian conflict. Churches have been razed by the rebels, Christians murdered or forced either to flee or cower in holes – remember the martyrdom of Fr Mourad at the hands of rebels? Remember the two Syrian Orthodox bishops kidnapped by the rebels, and of whom we have heard nothing since? The bishops of the various Catholic, Orthodox and Oriental churches have all spoken against any Western intervention, as has Pope Francis. Trappist nuns in Syria have heart-wrenching words that the West will probably ignore. The biggest losers from Western intervention will be the native Christian population, as their lives and their culture are threatened. The biggest winners will be Muslim fundamentalists, jihadists and Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda… Perhaps the most worrying thing about US foreign policy is that it has no sense of where its actions will lead, nor any moral compass in choosing whom they support. Remember, Al Qaeda was made possible not by Osama bin Laden, but by the US government, and that is from the horse’s mouth.

7 thoughts on “Syria – the tangled web

  1. I don’t agree Father that it is only traditional Catholics (i.e. if you mean traditional in the Latin Mass rite) who know about what the Pope has said with regard to this Day of Prayer for Syria. There are lots of prayer activities being organised in many places as well as individuals doing as you say above (an extra Rosary, a Holy Hour or whatever). And the worldwide media has broadcast what the Pope has asked for, for some days now. So there really is no excuse for anyone even non Catholics. God bless you.


    1. Actually, I was not referring only to those who prefer the Traditional form of the Mass, which is why I kept to a small t. Instead I was referring to those who acknowledge that the Church has a doctrinal, liturgical and socio-ethical heritage that goes back way beyond Vatican II and which is still relevant, and binding, today. Thus, having just looked at the home page for the National Catholic Reporter, a US journal that is secular-liberal in its mindset, there is one small story link referring to the Pope’s call for a day of “prayer for peace”; no mention of fasting or penance. Yet orthodox, traditional, Traditional, neo-conservative Catholic sites – blogs especially – have been quite vocal about the papal initiative in both its prayer and its penitential aspects. They represent mainstream Catholicism far better, as you imply. They know their scripture better too: Mark 9:29.



  2. Dear Fr Hugh I have found your posts on Syria particularly upsetting and feel compelled to write to ask you to think more read more and open your mind and heart more to the fundamental Christian principles of freedom and justice.

    First I declare my hand, a Catholic married to a Syrian Sunni Muslim who believes and practices his faith hoping for eternal reward. We have five children under ten.

    I have lived in Syria with him and his family, I have attended weekly Mass (sparsely attended, by the way, most of the year) at the Melkite church in the nearest Christian village, driven there by my kind father in law and collected by him afterwards. I felt the confusion of the local Catholics towards me, unable to ‘put me in a box’, I saw them mutter, and I responded to their direct questions about how my husband’s family treated me. They never smiled. I realised then that the Christian minority in Syria, perhaps understandably having been a minority for centuries, are a closed and suspicious group with more than a small chip on their collective shoulder.

    My husband, a man of conforming, conservative leanings, was before the revolution (like many or most before the war) a nationalist and a staunch supporter of the president; he argued that Assad was the linchpin connecting the disparate segments of society, that he controlled loose cannons, that he looked after Syrian interests. He had swallowed the foreign policy propaganda fed him throughout his life about Israel and the West, and he thought Hizbullah great. He was very Anti American and anti Iraq war.

    My husband is one of 9 brothers and 2 sisters who reached adulthood. Not all siblings were as conservative as he, some were always more outspoken about their frustrations at the absence of political freedom and the deep roots of corruption in the massive civil service and criminal justice system. One brother-in-law got a law degree and almost a license to practice; but could not bring himself to join that ugly system so to this day lives in a hovel with other Syrian men in Beirut working 7 days a week at a paint shop to support his wife and children in Syria. They miss his presence, and his guiding hand on family life; but the nepotistic and corrupt Assad government did not facilitate the development of free enterprise, and the wages in such a shop in Beirut are well more than double they would have been 2 hours away in Damascus. All other brothers have spent periods working abroad (in Kuwait and Lebanon) in order to be able to live and get married, and support their parents. My father in law worked 40 years as a driver in Kuwait. Economic migration was accepted as a fact of life as a result of the neosocialist policies of Baathist Syria.

    The scales fell from my husband’s eyes (regarding the regime, please add his Christian conversion to your prayers) when in early 2011 he saw the brutal mutilation and scoffing towards ordinary civilian prisoners in a jail that had been SHELLED BY THE GOVT back in 2006. Body parts were strewn everywhere. The shelling had been the response to a prisoner riot. It had not been publicized at the time but in the ‘Arab Spring’ the freedom of expression afforded by YouTube beyond the control of the regime, coupled with the arrival of the smartphone, has been crucial to Syrian people learning the truth of their oppression and in throwing off the 40 year mantel of fear.

    Please don’t write drivel about some people not being ‘ready’ for democracy. Please don’t believe a word put out by the regime. They are consummate liars in the face of blatant evidence of the truth. And please don’t imply that the Christians have been the hardest hit by the violence of the Syrian war. For every ancient church shelled or burnt there have been many mosques hit. Muslim sheikhs have been arrested tortured and killed too. Of the hundreds of thousands killed tortured and displaced, most are not Christian (unfortunately). From the start brave Christian individuals joined the call for freedom from oppression and for political reform; and from the start also the Christian leadership have closed their eyes and sided with the government. They have not maintained neutrality, as some like to put about. Their self-interest is driven by fear, and I believe this is Satan’s and Assad’s strongest weapon. Their spineless stance makes me deeply upset as they are betraying the basic tenets of our faith. Why fear consequences if you know you are standing for truth and justice?

    I am not naive; The opposition is riddled with nasty groups, of which probably a small minority is vitriolic-ally anti-Christian. Anarchy vigilantism and mock justice reigns. My husband’s cousin and his sister’s husband, a man of limited mental capacity and 10 mouths to feed had a regular army job. He was gunned down on his verandah in front of his family last year by locals branding him a ‘traitor’. my husband’s eldest brother 3 months later was abducted from outside his house, tortured and shot dead in the local wadi, most likely by similar or the same ignorant thugs who side with the opposition. There had been unproven suspicions that he was a regime informant. That brother always liked to carry an air of suspicion, i believe it boosted his self-image. Another brother was we believe arrested by the regime in Feb 2012 having been somehow involved in rebel activity and we have been unable to find him since. He has 4 children, the eldest is 7. By now he is either a starved and tortured wreck, or dead.

    So undeniably there are thugs on both sides, but I believe the organised state-sponsored thuggery against its own people is more sinister and more evil. Many ordinary Syrians have joined the jihadist militias because they are the ones with the weapons. They are genuinely fighting for freedom and a better Syria for everyone. And having opposed the invasion of Iraq, as a supporter of Syria I support whatever military intervention that will accelerate the downfall of Assad. Yes his regime will be followed by anarchy and chaos, vengeance and unleashed hatred. But this is all almost inevitable. I am not faithless, and yes I fasted today. And I agree 100% with the Pope’s recent words that the only way to peace is a ‘culture of dialogue and a culture of encounter’ – it’s what I live by daily. I was greatly heartened on 18th August to read para. 78 of Gaudium et Spes when it arrived in my inbox accompanied by the Daily Gospel. Injustice must be condemned, but we should worry about the injustice suffered by all, not concentrate on the ‘poor Syrian Christians’.

    Please subscribe to the Syria Comment blog and if you can, take some time to read back posts. I don’t personally agree with all arguments put forth there, but it is a useful resource for well-verified reporting and decent analysis.

    Yours sincerely Helen al Hariri


    1. I am not going to write much in reply since you consider what I write to be “drivel”. It need hardly be said that I feel great sadness over every innocent person who is suffering in Syria, be they Christian or Muslim. Also, I have never said that the regime of Mr Assad was perfect, nor even good. However it was certainly better than the chaos the rebels have caused today. It is now quite clear that the rebellion is being used by jihadists for their own end. An Italian reporter released after being kidnapped makes this very clear – . Rebels have kidnapped bishops and priests, not the government. It is the rebels who are burning churches, not the government – .

      And let’s be very honest – recent history shows that many countries have not been ready for western democracy to be injected straight into them. Your mistake, and that of many others, is to equate freedom with democracy. Everybody deserves freedom, but freedom is not the same thing as democracy. Christian freedom is the ability to be able to choose without coercion what is right and good; it is not the ability to do whatever you want. When democracies work they can be superb, but in those cases democracy has emerged from conflict and experience over a long period of time. When democracies are not healthy they are “the tyranny of the majority over the minority”.

      Christians are praying for a Syria in which there is real freedom, whether that involves democracy or not. Syria is an ancient homeland for Christians, who were there centuries before Islam came to exist. We are praying that Christians can again live there in peace, with their Muslim neighbours.

      If you think this is still drivel, bad luck – I am sticking to it.



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