Exodus: Syrian Patriarch criticizes German asylum policy

Reprinted from Frankfurter, Allgemeine:

A senior Church leader of Syrian Christians holds the German asylum offer responsible for the fact that so many people are leaving his country. By so doing, he reveals himself as a supporter of the Assad regime.

Syrian Patriarch Gregorios III Laham has expressed reservations about Germany’s great receptivity. He was “glad about the reception, but sad about the invitation,” the head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church said on Wednesday in Frankfurt. The willingness of the Federal Government to grant protection to war refugees from Syria was “understood there to mean that Germany wanted to have a certain number of people.”

Certainly fear is a motive for flight, but this fear was deliberately exacerbated by “Islamic State,” said the clergyman. Other reasons for the exodus from Syria were “hope for a better life and a better future” as well as desire for “adventure,” said Gregorios III. He likened the exodus to an “epidemic.” The patriarch, who resides in Damascus, was visiting Frankfurt on the occasion of the consecration of the Byzantine chapel at the Jesuit College of St. George.

Although the civilian population in Aleppo was suffering under very difficult conditions, and the situation in Homs was increasingly difficult, life in Damascus was mostly going on as usual. All commodities are available and the cost of living is still cheaper than in neighbouring Lebanon. “The bazaars are full,” said Gregorios III.

It was “not true” that people are fleeing from government areas. On the contrary, many internally displaced persons were seeking shelter in places that were under the control of Syria’s President Bashar al Assad. “Security is where the government is,” said Gregorios III. As evidence, he pointed to his Patriarchate’s refugee assistance. At the beginning of the conflict in 2011, the reception centre in Damascus was supporting three hundred families; now it supports eight thousand.

The Patriarch described the Syrian conflict as controlled by different interests. The “so-called opposition” was “paid,” demonstrations “bought.” In Syria, meanwhile, many war profiteers or “riches de la guerre” were making a living. House prices had fallen due to oversupply, from which a mafia profited. Even employees of international humanitarian organizations were highly paid, according to the Church leader.

High praise for the dictator Assad

Syria’s President Assad is, from the perspective of the senior Church leader, the victim of targeted defamation. In the Western media “manipulation, ignorance, the desire to learn the worst,” prevailed, Laham said. Furthermore he blamed Syria’s negative image on Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio who was abducted over two years ago. The latter, as “a lone priest” and head of a government-supported monastery, had systematically spoken ill of the Assad government.

Compared to the era of Hafez al Assad, the incumbent President’s father who ruled from 1970 to 2000, the situation in Syria has changed fundamentally, according to the Patriarch, head of an Eastern Church in union with Rome. There was greater religious freedom than in most other countries of the Middle East. Apart from Lebanon, Syria is the only country in the region where Islam is not the state religion.

He himself could not share the negative view of Assad, Gregorios III said. In personal meetings, the President appears cultivated, full of sympathy and respect for the Christian religion. “I do not know what people have against him,” to quote the patriarch verbatim.

The Italian Jesuit Dall’Oglio had disappeared in July 2013 in Raqqa near the Turkish border and is supposed to be held by fundamentalist groups. For more than thirty years he worked in Syria, having settled there specifically to promote Christian-Muslim dialogue. The Catholic Church and the Italian government have been trying, so far in vain, to obtain the release of the religious.

Born near Damascus, the Patriarch has ruled the Melkite Greek Catholic Church since 2000. The Eastern Church united with Rome has an estimated 1.6 million members, almost half of whom live abroad in parishes in Brazil and Argentina.

© 2015 Frankfurter, Allgemeine