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Special Report from Syria

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Timothy Radcliffe OP, Director of the Las Casas Institute, has just returned from a special visit to Syria with an international peace delegation.

I was invited by Mairead MaGuire, who jointly (with Betty Williams) won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for her work in Northern Ireland, to join a small Peace delegation to Syria. We were Christians, a Hindu, and a few agnostics. I leapt at the opportunity to go. For me this was, above all, a chance to show some solidarity with Christian communities, among the oldest in the world, who felt deserted and forgotten.

Our base was a Carmelite monastery in the mountains, half way between Damascus and Homs. It was about three miles from the frontline with ISIS. Sleep at night was difficult because of the artillery fire. We met government officials, imams, bishops, opposition leaders, religious communities, and ordinary people in the street.
I was deeply struck by the profound friendship between Christians and so many Muslims. In the village just below the monastery, Muslims came to the Catholic Church to celebrate the birth of the prophet and Christians went to the mosque to celebrate Christmas. Yes, that way around! As I had seen in Baghdad, Muslims were putting up Christmas trees as a sign of their closeness to Christians. In Tartus we visited the first mosque ever to be dedicated to Our Lady, and the imam there sung the sutra from the Qur’an that is in her honour. We had a day with the Melkite Patriarch who was overjoyed at our visit, and who is a close friend of the Grand Mufti of Syria, with whom we had a couple of hours.

It is hard to discern the true situation of Syria. The West has its own narrative, in which the President, Bashar al-Assad, is seen as a cruel tyrant who must be removed from power as soon as possible. Nearly all the people with whom we talked had other narratives. People feared an imposed regime change even more than Daesh. They had seen how in Iraq and Libya this had led to chaos and the flourishing of terrorism. As Dominicans, we know that the truth is to be arrived at patiently and humbly, listening attentively all voices. I was saddened, returning to the UK, by the simplistic certainty with which so many politicians write of this complex country.

The atmosphere is saturated with violence. In Damascus people carried around AK 47s as if they were umbrellas. Homs was virtually destroyed. We visited Maaloula, a Christian village in which Aramaic is still spoken. Before we could have breakfast we were hustled into cars and driven away at speed. We had been spotted by al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of al-Qaeda; an attack was imminent.

Everywhere, Christians and Muslims are labouring to produce reconciliation, at the risk of their lives. I slowly became aware of how much this violence magnifies upon a terrible screen the violence that is so pervasive of Western gun culture. I went to see Spectre, the latest James Bond movie, shortly after my return. This is the sort of film that the jihadists love. But Bond’s final act was to throw away his gun. We shall only defeat Daesh if we heal our souls of violence.

The photos below were taken during the visit by Brother David of the monastery of St James the Mutilated.

Fr Georges tells how this the Church of St Michael's was sacked by terrorists, and restored.

Speaking about reconciliation at the Syrian Catholic church in Homs.

Syrian children

A family on a motorcycle in Qara.

Syrian children walking to school.

Two delegates.

Mother Agnes and Maria the Russian delegate.

A visit from Patriarch Gregorios III.

Paying respects to Jesuit martyr for peace, Fr Franz Vanderlugt.

Fruze and Indian delegate in solidarity with Syrians.

The Patriarch blesses a mobile hospital donated from Holland.

Refugee children.

Two Syrians.

Visiting a mosque in honour of the Virgin Mary with the Patriarch.

The delegates joking around.

Nobel laureate Maguire receives a Qur'an from a sheikh who works for peace.

Delegate Maria from Russia.

The martyrs.

Coffin draped with a flag.

The father.

Mourning women.

A boy salutes his father.


Comments

Cheryl commented on 18-Dec-2015 08:20 PM
If you ever visit Syria again or have connections to help me I have family there. unfortunately I never made connections with them before the war . But my aunt visited them back in the 80s . My great uncle used to be a priest it Mar Jirgis Orthodox Church in Homs. My grandmother's name is Mariam Duna TAmer. Her nephew Philip Khoury, and I also think Sammy would be parishioners at Mar Jirgis. One of them was a pharmacist . Any hope of connecting me with them would be wonderful--I would appreciate it so much . Thank you
Marilyn A. Winter, OP commented on 19-Dec-2015 02:15 AM
Thank you for the wonderful photos and your reflections on the visit. It is so good to get the word from one who has actually been there and spoken face to face with the people. May blessings of this holy season of Christ's birth be with the whole world.
Sister Dusty commented on 19-Dec-2015 12:05 PM
Thank you for going to Syria and being present to the people. Your remarks are significant in trying to understand what is happening in the area. The photos add to the story for sure. May Peace Prevail.
Maeve commented on 19-Dec-2015 10:53 PM
Dear Timothy,
Many thanks for your account of your visit to Syria with a peace delegation. We in the West have an incomplete picture of the complexity of the problems in this ancient cradle of Christianity. Will we ever get it clear from our superior position?
Thanks for the photos. Safe travels, brother, and a blessed, happy Christmas!
Maeve Mc Mahon O.P.
Anonymous commented on 22-Dec-2015 02:20 AM
In Jeasus name, God Bless you all and the oppressed and their oppressors. Peace be with you.
Jasper Allen commented on 22-Dec-2015 11:03 AM
Dear Timothy, thank you so much for sending your report which I have read with such interest. Wishing you a Happy Christmas and New Year
p John O'Neill commented on 22-Dec-2015 12:13 PM
Thank you so much, Timothy for your report and your positive commitment to peace. Congratulations to you and all who are part of this process.
I will pray for you at my Christmas Mass.
Anonymous commented on 22-Dec-2015 02:03 PM
It gives me such hope to see the people of the book loving each other.
Peregrine commented on 23-Dec-2015 09:39 AM
Thank you for this report, it is so good to read something encouraging from the nightmare that Syria and Iraq have been descending into. I could not help but notice the involvement of the controversial Mother Agnes in this trip, and I wonder how far she influenced the narrative you picked up in situ. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/05/catholic-nun-mother-agnes-syria-civil-war
Leslie Shaw Klinger, O.P commented on 21-Jan-2016 08:33 PM
thank you so much for this wonderful report. St Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
Anonymous commented on 06-Feb-2016 07:27 PM
Many Muslims indicate that Islam is the "religion of peace" and draw upon the Koran to justify that position. However many other Muslims use the Koran to justify their terrorist activities, consider Islam a superior religion, and offer only conversion, subjugation of death to the Non-Muslim infidel. In addition, many of the peaceful Muslims, while not themselves using terrorist tactics, still consider those that do to be true practitioners of Islam. How can there divergent positions be reconciled? It appears that too many Non-Muslims are being duped by subversive organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Mosques that continue to preach the radical form of Islam!

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