By Gerard Butt
16th November 2012
THE newly elected head of the largest Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Council (SNC), George Sabra, has called on church leaders to follow the example of Pope Benedict XVI and visit the region to encourage Christians to stay put.
Mr Sabra, a Christian and a veteran opponent of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, escaped from Syria early this year. Last Friday, he was chosen as the new SNC leader. Two days later, after intensive discussions in the capital of Qatar, Doha, the SNC joined other opposition groups in a new unified front, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.
The latter is headed by Moaz al-Khatib, formerly imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. He had been jailed for a time for supporting the popular uprising, and also fled from his home country.
The choice of a Christian to head the SNC, which will hold 22 of the 60 seats on the National Coalition’s ruling body, has been widely welcomed as a positive signal to minorities in Syria. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davutoglu, said that the election of Mr Sabra proved that “what is happening in Syria is not an ethnic or sectarian struggle, but tension between the demands of the people and an oppressive regime.”
Mr Sabra, in an interview last weekend with an Italian newspaper, said that Christians were an integral part of Syrian society, and called for more church leaders to attest to this. “Christians do not need people to protect them, because they are joint proprietors of the country, together with the other Syrians.”
He went on to praise the visit to Lebanon by the Pope ( News, 21 September). “What we heard from Benedict XVI we have not heard from any other religious authority in the Middle East. The Pope argued that the Arab Spring was a search for dignity and freedom by Arab peoples, and he urged Christians not to leave their countries.” After “finally having heard a real Christian voice, as a Christian, I can say that I am proud to be one,” Mr Sabra said.
The new coalition was formed after pressure from Gulf states and the West for the creation of a united front that could speak for the whole Syrian opposition, form a government in exile, and gain international recognition. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League were the first bodies to recognise it, while its formation was praised in most Western capitals.
Mr Sabra made it clear, however, that further progress would have to be accompanied by more armed action inside Syria: “We need only one thing to support our right to survive and to protect ourselves: we need weapons.” As long as President Assad remained in power, he said, “dialogue remains a word devoid of meaning.” But he promised that the new Syria would be inclusive – “democratic, potentially secular, reconciled, and free from oppression”.
As the fighting inside Syria intensifies, and the stream of refu- gees out of the country swells, the chances of a peaceful resolution seem as distant as ever. Pope Benedict said last week that he had hoped to send a delegation of priests to Damascus “as a sign of my own solidarity and that of the whole Church for the Syrian people, as well as our spiritual closeness to the Christian communities in that country”. But, owing to “a variety of circumstances and developments, it was not possible to carry out this initiative as planned”. Instead, he sent an envoy to Lebanon to meet and help co-ordinate the efforts of Roman Catholic charities working with Syrian refugees.
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