For Christians all over the world, December is usually a time for celebration. For Christians in Syria—and indeed for all Syrians—life remains as challenging as it has been for the past twenty-one months. Communities in Syria are tackling food shortages and electricity blackouts against a backdrop of harsh winter temperatures.
Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, travels the world attending interfaith events and discussions on Syria, and recently appealed to the international community for solid diplomatic initiatives in the country. In conversation with The Majalla, Ibrahim discusses Syria’s continuing instability from his own perspective as a community leader in the country’s most populous city.
The Majalla: What is the current state of Aleppo?
Aleppo as a city is a tragedy, a real tragedy, because a third of the city has been destroyed and most parts of the city are paralyzed. Everything is blocked: no shops, no souk, no schools, no university, no mosques, no churches. It’s a real disaster. When you come to Aleppo you can read the sadness in the eyes of all the people, from all different backgrounds. If this tragedy continues the whole city will become a dead city, and this is why Syrians are looking for something to happen, like from America, immediately, just to stop this tragedy.
Q: Do you think that foreign intervention in Syria is a good idea?
I think there are different scenarios for the future of Syria. One is international intervention, or Arab intervention, or intervention from its neighbors. This is not an entirely good scenario because then the question is, ‘How would you put an end to this intervention?’ On what condition would they leave? You cannot guarantee they will go. If you cannot guarantee that, this is not a good scenario for Syria.
The second scenario is that Syria will have a real civil war, which we don’t have right now, because although the fighters come from different backgrounds, they are also divided into different groups. It is not true that everyone is carrying weapons and that everybody is involved in this war and everyone is fighting. There is no civil war in this sense.
Now the third scenario could be the division of the country and this is another disaster for the future of Syria because this united country will become fragmented. You can divide it but you cannot unite it again, and you might regret that in the future. So, intervention is maybe one of the most vivid scenarios for Syrians because they believe that when the military assistance comes from other parts of the world—Europe, USA, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia—they might be able put an end to this dirty war. In my opinion, that could complicate the situation further. We don’t need to have another negative element that can take hold of the whole country in the future.
Q: Without an intervention, what hope do you have for the future of the country?
First of all, we need a group of wise people. Still I believe that yes, there are some external elements in this war, but still I believe that the Syrians themselves can do something for their country. If you can find sincere people who can really represent different components, come together and have a constructive dialogue, this might bring some kind of solution for the future.
The other thing is that we should go for is, not a dialogue, but a negotiation, because when you sit down at a table you have to contribute something as well as listen. If you have this exchange from both sides of the table, that is negotiating. Dialogue means that you can hear me, I can hear you; you can talk, I can talk. That is not enough. Negotiation means that you are prepared to give as much as you are ready to receive. By negotiation, and I think even if the external elements take part, they might be able to provide some solution for the future. The main problem today with Syria is how to rebuild confidence among the people. It is not only to stop the war.
Now there are certain things that should become an introduction for this negotiation. First of all is the ceasefire. If you don’t have a ceasefire you cannot negotiate. If you don’t have a ceasefire you cannot tell yourself and the others that we stopped everything. No bloodshed, no injured people, no kidnapped people. You cannot imagine how it is to live in a peaceful atmosphere.
Also, this is very important, we should really think about those who are in prison and those who are kidnapped, those who are injured and you have many of them . . . and then the uprooted people. Equally important is that we should think about how to supply humanitarian aid, because you know wherever you go today in any city town or village, you will find people who are really in need. They have become desolate; there are incredibly poor families so humanitarian aid will help a lot. Then after that negotiation is the solution where everybody can come and talk.
Q: Do you think negotiations are possible now?
I think if the rebels and the opposition outside of Syria will not sit down [at] the table no solution will come. You know when you talk alone it means that this is a monologue not a dialogue. You cannot reach a solution through a monologue. You have to bring those who have a really bad opinion about you—let them come and talk and then you might just come to a solution.
If you talk alone or talk with those who are supporters, that is pointless. I was recently in Iraq. There was an excellent meeting with about one hundred and twenty people from Syria. There we heard from the opposition’s side and those that are loyal to the regime. But in fact all of them are Syrians from inside. I think under the auspices of the UN—maybe Arab League—maybe Arab countries that are keen to see Syria return [to how] it was before . . . can bring some solution. At least they could come to a conclusion that a ceasefire should be one of the most important agreements between them.
Q: Do you think that the international community is doing enough to encourage this negotiation?
Until now, I think not. It’s a big pity to say that the international community until now didn’t give any evidence that they can influence both sides, neither the rebels and the opposition, nor the regime, because both sides are fighting and the fighters are from both sides. They are killing from both sides and they are destroying from both sides. So it seems that those who are somehow father of the opposition, they cannot stop it, and from the other side also Iran, Russia, [and] China cannot stop the regime from killing and destroying. So it seems that the international community until now failed to have a real picture of how to stop this bloodshed.
Q: What is your opinion of the newly formed opposition coalition?
I think it’s good because when you have a fragmented opposition, when you have a weak opposition . . . For me, I think to come together as opposition and to be united and be organized and have a clear agenda for the future, it’s very good because in that way you can talk to a representative. If a group is not united, not organized, not clear in its vision you have no one who can represent them to talk to. Now a coalition is there, it’s good. You can invite them to talk and see if there can be any concrete solution for the future, so I think I am positive about that.
Q: Does the Christian community in Syria still feel particularly vulnerable?
Christians in Syria . . . the majority are keeping silent. Of course we were in a stage where everybody was worried, but today I think that everybody is afraid. We couldn’t believe that within twenty months things will have that kind of dramatic change within the society. And we couldn’t believe that sometimes our churches will be attacked, our Christian people would be kidnapped and then we will hear some bad words about our existence, our presence in Syria. Everything is new for us.
Therefore, I think the majority of the Christians today are keeping silent waiting for some changes. We have among the loyalists many Christians. Some of those defend the regime and President Bashar Al-Assad. Then on the opposition’s side we also have some Christians, we have good names, we know them very well, like George Sabra, Michel Kilo, Faiz Sara . . . I think those are well-known Christian figures in Syria. Even if they don’t represent Christianity, you know from their names—you know they are Christians.
We’ll see, because the Christians until now, they are at a stage of waiting for the future, no one can give any indication that something positive or negative will happen to the Christians. Now there is one phenomenon which is very important: at least a third of the Christians have now left Syria, or they were moved from one place to another. I can guarantee that from Aleppo between twenty and thirty thousand Christians have left the city. Mainly they went to Armenia, because we have a large Armenian community in Aleppo, and the rest they went to other places. We have thousands of families waiting in Lebanon for nothing; they don’t know whether this will allow them to come back or not. So the Christians today, the majority are keeping silent they don’t give any declaration of who they are, but the rest, as I said, some are with here and some there.
Q: How far do you believe this will be the final exodus of Christians from Syria?
I hope not, because that will be not only a disaster for the Christians in Syria but for other components of society as well and therefore for the Syrians, both for the Alawites and Sunnis, and that would be a disaster for the whole area. Christians are always leaving from one country to another and in the end you will find yourself in a region where you don’t have Christians—take Iraq and Palestine for example—and today it has started in Syria and in Egypt. The Christians are coming down in number and that will affect negatively on all the societies where they used to live.
Q: Do you have a positive outlook for the future of Syria?
Well yes, as a man of God or as a religious leader I see that still at the end of this tunnel there is light, and we could go there and benefit from that light and do something not only for the bodies but even for the spirits, because we don’t like to harm the spirits of the people.
I think we should have hope and confidence, and I think we should look forward and try to gain from this rich history of communities of components and then decide together to rebuild Syria and have a real Syria where everyone can feel that he belongs to this country. Belonging is not something small: it is a very big thing. If you belong to a country it means you have identity; if you don’t have identity you feel that you are nothing. Identity is about how much I belong to this country, to the soul of this country, to the heritage of this country, to the history of this country and how far I can work with the others for anything which will bring peace fraternity tranquility and prosperity to the country.